Excerpt: A Golden Cage
Deanna Randolph tried not to stare, but it was the most remarkable thing she had ever seen. When she’d first learned that Maude Grantham was transporting an entire theater company to perform for her husband’s birthday fete, Deanna hadn’t known what to imagine.
The Grantham’s “cottage” on Bellevue Avenue stood out like a sentinel of good taste against the more imaginative facades of the other “cottages’ that were being built in Newport. But even its stalwart presence was a study in excess, if you asked Deanna.
Tonight it was the scene of festivity and color. Across the meticulously trimmed lawn, huge golden cages, trimmed with fairy lights, held birds of iridescent plumage. Exotic flowers cascaded down the bars and spilled onto the ground.
A red velvet carpet led across the lawn to a canopy and booths of entertainment. And at the back of the garden a theatre—an actual theater —had been built for the occasion.
This was Deanna’s first season and though she’d attended many extravagant affairs, none came close to what she was seeing tonight.
Gwendolyn Manon with whom Deanna was spending the summer, leaned closer. “My goodness, it looks like a combination of an Istanbul bazaar and Brighton Beach.”
Deanna thought it was all those things and more.
“Close your mouth my dear, and prepare to meet our hostess.” Gwen nudged Deanna forward.
Deanna closed her mouth but her eyes continued to drink in the spectacle. Such a play of lights against shadows. The huge August moon hung above the carnival atmosphere like a stage set. She didn’t see how any actual play could surpass this scene. She’d love to paint it. She’d call it Festive Lights on a Dark Summer’s Night.
Now that her mama had taken her sister Adelaide to Switzerland to cure her migraine’s, Deanna was enjoying many more freedoms, including painting objects that mama wouldn’t approve of at all. This was all thanks to Gran Gwen, who wasn’t Deanna’s grandmother but a friend of her father’s and the grandmother of Joe Ballard to whom Deanna was almost engaged the previous summer.
Gwen led her to a woman of zaftig proportions. Their hostess, Mrs. Samuel Grantham stood in a circle of soft light that illuminated her champagne colored ball gown with its sweep of train, covered in embroidered gold and silver stars. A firmament herself and circled by her glittering guests.
“Maude.” Grand Gwen offered her gloved hand for a brief return of pressure. “I believe you are acquainted with my guest, Deanna Randolph.”
Maude Grantham turned slightly toward Deanna, and Deanna was momentarily blinded by the sparkle of the thick diamond choker that graced the lady’s neck.
“Ah, yes, George and Jeannette’s girl. I’m surprised that her mother would leave her to stay with you, especially after that business last month.”
Deanna held her chin high. At least murder had stopped all the gossip about why she and Joe Ballard had broken off their assumed engagement.
Mrs. Grantham sighed. “A detective, what will they do next, these modern girls?”
“There’s no telling,” Gran Gwen said with an air of agreement but with a malicious glint in her eye. “She was br-r-rilliant,” Gran Gwen said, rolling her rs in such an exaggerated fashion that it made Deanna want to laugh. Though it was daunting to be known for her “exploits,” as her mother called them, rather than being sought after for her breeding, beauty, and monetary future.
Though if she had to choose . . .
“I suppose we can’t expect less, considering the way that young Joseph has surprised us all throwing off society to consort with . . .” She raised a desultory hand.
“The great unwashed?” Gwen supplied.
Maude cut her a look. “Why am I surprised? You’ve set such an outrageous example, but surely you could have stopped that nonsense if you had tried.”
“Surely I could have. But you know how indulgent we older folks can be. I’m surprised that you allowed Drusilla and Walter to have a theatre constructed on your property and present a play.”
“It was an indulgence I know, but Drusilla so wanted to please her father, and the Judge does love the theatre. As long as it’s on a decent subject.”
Gran Gwen smiled and moved on.
Deanna gave a quick half curtsey and followed her.
“I’m sure the play will be very staid . . . and long . . . and boring,” Gwen said as she nodded and smiled at people as they made their way across the lawn.
Deanna hoped not. She loved going to the theater. Something her own mama didn’t totally approve of unless it was the opera or Shakespeare.
“Maude is becoming more of a stuff shirt than her husband. She’s always been a bit of a prude, and marrying the judge didn’t help. But now that Anthony Comstock with his asinine morality laws has got his talons into the Judge, not to mention that Parkhurst fellow, there’s no bearing either of them. At least the judge, moralistic bombast that he is, enjoys a good play, and the occasional glass of champagne.
“Ah, there is Joseph and his parents.” Gwen took Deanna by the elbow and propelled her down the velvet walkway to where Laurette and Lionel Ballard were standing with Joe.
“Where have you all been?” Gwen asked. “I was beginning to think you weren’t coming.”
“Laurette received a telegram, that of course must be answered,” Lionel said, casting an amused but loving look to his wife, Joe’s mother.
Laurette was Gran Gwen’s daughter; and though they both shared the same fiery temperament, the two women couldn’t be more different in looks. Gwendolyn Henriette LaGuerre Manon was large of name but diminutive in figure, petite and small boned; she nonetheless held the respect of all of Newport in spite of her less than orthodox life and loves. Her daughter Laurette was tall, willowy, with light brown hair and classic features. The story was that Lionel Ballard had met, fallen in love with and proposed to her in the same night.
“Yes,” Laurette said. “From Mariah Deeks. Her daughter Amabelle left home, must be two years ago to become an actress. Evidently she is one of the players in tonight’s performance.”
“Ah,” Gwen said. “And I imagine she wants you to convince the girl to go home?”
“Yes, but of course I will do no such thing. The theatre is one of the few professions where a woman can earn as much money as men. I will, however look in on the girl. Perhaps invite her to stay with us while the company is in Newport. If that’s alright with you, Mama.”
Deanna noted that even Joe’s mother, the actual mistress of the Ballard cottage, was still seeking the approval of her mother. Though Deanna expected in Laurette’s case, it was more a show of respect than needing Gran Gwen’s approval.
Laurette was an indefatigable worker for women’s suffrage and children’s welfare. She travelled widely to organize marches and workers’ strikes. Lionel, whose family were one of the scions of old money, was a respected financier who dabbled in business though “silently” in most cases. Joseph, their only son, and heir to the Ballard fortune, had surprised the entirety of society the summer before, by remaining in Newport full time, to live in the working class fifth ward where he could house and work on his inventions.
An eccentric but respected family by the sheer dent of Lionel’s money and Gran Gwen’s personality.
And into their lives, Deanna had come. Sometimes she couldn't believe her good fortune.
“I’m sure I don’t care what the girl does,” Gwen said.
“Nor I,” Laurette agreed.
“In that case, my love,” Lionel Ballard said. “Shall we leave the topic and have our fortune read? I see a gypsy tent among the arcades.”
Laurette laughed and took his arm, a familiar gesture that might scandalize some of the more staid members of society, Deanna’s mother included. But her mother was an ocean away. Deanna didn’t even try to suppress her shiver of exhilaration.
“Are you cold, my dear?” Gran Gwen asked.
“No ma’am, just excited,” Deanna said as she watched the two Ballards enter the canopy and stop at a colorful tent before stepping inside.
“I suppose you’ll want to have your fortune read, too?” Joe said, sounding jaded and worldly and bored.
“I don’t think so,” Deanna answered. Maybe it was better not to know. Anyway fortune tellers always told you that you would meet a tall, dark, handsome man and she was standing next to one. That would be beyond embarrassing, since Joe had already rejected her as a potential wife. Not that she cared.
There was a whole world to experience out there, and she intended to experience it.
“Then come. I’ll win you a prize at the cocoanut shies booth. Grandmère?”
“You two run along. I see someone with whom I wish to speak.” And before Joe could offer to accompany her, she swept away like a woman of many fewer years. Deanna and Joe both turned to see where she was going.
“Of course,” Joe said. “Quentin Asher. Well, it won’t be a dull evening.”
How could it be, Deanna wondered, with a play and carnival games and dinner and dancing—and fireworks.
“What are cocoanut shies?” she asked as Joe escorted her beneath the bright red canopy toward the rows of colorful tents.
Coconut shies turned out to be a game where each player was given three wooden balls to knock over a line of coconuts. Joe won a pretty gold and enamel box which he presented to Deanna, but when she announced her intention to try for herself, he guided her away.
“Not tonight, but someday I’ll take you to Coney Island and you can ride the carousel and throw balls at coconuts to your heart’s—” He broke off. “There’s mother and father. Let’s join them.”
Just as they reached them, a gong sounded, deep and reverberating through the night, announcing the performance was soon to begin. The four of them joined the other guests as they began to make their way toward the theatre.
“It looks just like a real theatre,” Deanna said as soon as they entered. There was a raised stage with heavy curtains pulled across the proscenium. An orchestra was placed in front of the stage. Rows of chairs were arranged at comfortable intervals across the wide expanse of wooden floor which Deanna guessed would soon become the ballroom.
They were shown to four chairs by a footman, one of a dozen who were showing parties to their seats. Mrs. Grantham had surely hired extra for the occasion. Deanna looked around the audience. Some of the finest families were there. Several Vanderbilts, the Olneys, the Wetmores, a veritable who’s who of Newport society.
Lionel leaned toward the others. “I talked to Walter Edgerton. The play’s called The Sphinx. He says Maude had the good sense to have it cut down to one act. It only lasts an hour.”
“Good,” Joe said. “These chairs are about a comfortable as a second class train car.”
Deanna frowned at him. He’d joined them for dinner the night before with stories of watching the construction of the stage; he’s explained in detail the operating of the sets. As far as Joe was concerned, he’d seen the best the play had to offer. He couldn’t care less about the acting or being swept up in the emotions of the characters.
It really was just like being at the theatre, Deanna thought as the house lights lowered and everyone settled to silence.
“The lights are run from a large master board at the side of the stage,” Joe whispered to Deanna. “They use—”
“Shh,” Laurette warned.
Joe settled back to endure the play.
A door at the side of the stage opened and the conductor stepped through. Applause broke out as he climbed the podium, where he turned and bowed to the audience.
The music began, the curtain rose and everyone’s attention was focused on the stage. Before them stood a golden pyramid almost as large as the stage itself. Its large Sphinx head scrutinized them all as if from a far and exotic place.
“Impressive,” Joe said under his breath. “I wonder . . .” He trailed off into silence before his mother had to warn him again.
Deanna knew he was wondering how they’d managed to construct such a massive structure in such a limited time. He’d probably sneak off sometimes during the evening to get a closer look. Deanna just planned to enjoy the play.
Two rows of girls dressed in school uniforms entered singing in chorus. According to the program, they were students from the P’teecha’s Institute. On closer inspection, Deanna saw that though a few of them could be school girls, others were long past their school girl years.
They were interrupted by the entrance of a male chorus of approximately the same number as the girls, costumed as Bedouins, spinning and leaping onto the stage. They were dressed in colorful robes, and held scimitars over their heads, and they quickly subdued the girls with the power of their love.
Deanna peered more closely at the women on stage. “Which one is Amabelle?” she whispered to Laurette.
“I’m not sure. Maybe . . .” She lifted a finger toward one. “Or . . .” She shook her head. “We’ll have to wait until the play is over to find out.”
Deanna hoped that “we” meant Laurette was including her in the meeting. She’d never even been close to a real actor or actress. Her mama considered them unprincipled, immoral and a few other things Deanna didn’t remember.
Deanna thought they were fascinating. And to think actresses made just as much money as the men.
The play proceeded with a Professor Papyrus giving the school girls a book that held the answers to the sphinx’s questions each one must answer in order to marry her Bedouin.
Deanna wished they would make plays of some of the stories from the dime novels she and her maid, Elspeth, read together each night. They were much more exciting than most plays she’d seen. They had adventures and dangers and female detectives who did a lot more than worry about marrying some Bedouin.
She was startled from her wandering attention by a cymbal crash. Several members of the audience started. The orchestra swelled, and a panel that looked just like stone, rose, exposing a golden room inside the pyramid. Light shone from it like rays of sun, glinting on the golden walls and pouring out onto the stage. And from this stepped Hathor, the embodiment of the great stone Sphinx, dressed in shining gold.
The goddess stretched her arms forward, and she seemed to rise from the floor.
“Hydraulic lift,” Joe whispered.
Deanna ignored him. Hathor stepped out of the chamber and walked forward almost as if she were standing on air—not the wooden stage. The audience applauded her appreciatively.
The young girls returned, now dressed all in white for their weddings. Only these wedding dresses look more like the drapery one saw on Greek statues. They were made of some filmy see-through material, but completely respectable since they were draped over a satin underdress.
One by one they answered the Sphinx’s questions correctly. The action became a little tedious and by the time the maids had married their Bedouins and Professor Papyrus and Hathor had fallen in love, Deanna was thankful there had only been an hour.
And then in the final chorus, the Sphinx broke apart and the first young couple stepped back into the golden space. Before everyone’s eyes, they rose up and out of sight. The second couple did the same and the next until all had ascended in heavenly wedded bliss, and only the professor and Hathor remained on stage.
The orchestra swelled and the lights rose to reveal the couples standing above the audience raining rose petals down on the solitary couple below them.
“How did they do that?” Deanna asked Joe.
“Some kind of wheel, probably a modified Ferris wheel. With platforms instead of baskets.”
“But where did they go and how did they get all the way up there?
“I imagine they stepped off the platforms and onto a cat walk that spans the stage. Hmmm.” Joe leaned forward. “Interesting. Yes.”
The curtain fell to appreciative applause and thoughts turned to dinner being served on the terrazzo. But Joe just sat there looking at the closed curtain.
Deanna recognized that look. He was getting an idea.
“Did you enjoy the play?” Mr. Ballard asked her.
“Immensely. Though there could have been a little more adventure.”
“A band of Bedouins isn’t enough for you?”
“He’s teasing you, Deanna.” Laurette gathered them up. “Lionel, you and Joseph go on up to supper. I must say hello to Rosalie’s daughter and then I’ll join you. Deanna, would you like to come with me?”
Joe started to protest, but Laurette cut him short. “It’s all well and good for you to turn your back on society and go off to do what interests you, but should not Deanna have the same choice?”
Joe’s mouth tightened.
Laurette patted his arm. “Don’t sulk. It’s only a handful of actors in Mrs. Grantham’s garden, not suffragettes on a hunger strike.” And with a trill of laughter she spirited Deanna away.
“Men,” she said as soon as they’d rounded the back of the theatre. “You know I would never do anything to put you in harm’s way. And if any of your mother’s friends objects to your visit back stage, tell them I made you do it.”
She led the way, humming one of the tunes from the show.
They passed a tent set up for dining.
“So society won’t have to interact with the hoi polloi, though mark my words they’ll be sauntering down to get a close up view before the night is over.”
Ahead of them a wide wooden walkway ran between the back wall of the stage and a row of tents. They made their way down the path avoiding the large chunks of Pyramid which was being dismantled and carried into one of the tents. It had looked so real on stage but now Deanna saw that it was made mostly of thin wood and cardboard.
There was a costume tent and an equipment tent, and two additional tents on the end.
“See? Separate dressing areas for male and females. Perfectly respectable.”
As if to prove her wrong a commotion burst out ahead of them and a woman carrying a heavy bundle of gowns out of the women’s changing tent, backed out with a final batterie of French. As she was turning to go, two beefy workers careered around the corner carrying a length of foot lights between them.
“Watch yer back.”
The costumiére let out a squeal. At the last second, they managed to slide pass each other and detour around Laurette and Deanna so smoothly that if it had appeared on stage, a choreographer would have been employed to insure there would be no mishap.
But once disaster had been evaded, the accusations and insults blossomed into a bouquet of harsh words, with sneers from the stage hands and fiery insults delivered in perfect French from the wardrobe lady catapulting over Deanna’s head.
Laurette pulled Deanna aside. “Perhaps not totally respectable. But energetic. Yes, real energy. If it could only be reined in and used for . . .”
Laurette’s words trailed off as she saw a handsome middle-aged man in an exquisite dressing gown striding toward them. He was still wearing full makeup; his hair was parted in the middle and winged back from a long face and patrician nose.
“Mon Dieu, if it isn't the lovely Laurette.” He bowed low over her hand, then still holding that hand, he looked up. “And where is the honorable Lionel this evening?”
“Waiting for his dinner up at the terrazzo.”
“But of course.” He let go of her hand. “And how did you enjoy our little show?”
“Yes, a butchery of a play that wasn’t that meaty to begin with.” He glanced at Deanna and tilted his head.
“Edwin. May I introduce my friend Deanna Randolph? Deanna, Edwin Stevens, our star of the evening. And manager of the acting troupe.”
Deanna curtseyed, trying to take in this debonair, refined gentleman who had just spent the last hour playing the ridiculously comic Professor Papyrus. She wondered which one was the real Edwin Stevens.
“Edwin. I’ve come to say hello to Amabelle Deeks. Is she in the ladies tent?”
Edwin’s eyebrows lifted. They winged slightly upward making his expression more humorous than he obviously meant. “She is in the last tent with the other chorus ladies.” He nodded toward the end of the row of tents, moved closer to Laurette and said so quietly that Deanna almost didn’t hear him. “If she has a friend, that friend should take her away . . . now.”