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New York City, February 1, 1875
Alva Penrose Rensselaer Webster had been inside Delmonico’s for nine seconds before Mrs. Henry Biddington asked the maître d’hôtel to throw her out. Alva knew because she’d counted them out: one, no one had noticed her yet; two, casual glances to see who had just come in sharpened; three, people began to nudge their neighbors; four, the whispers started; five, they turned angry; six, Mrs. Biddington, gray-haired battle-axe and leader of society, flagged her waiter down; eight, the maître d’hôtel crossed to her table; nine, Mrs. Biddington made an outraged gesture towards Alva and began to complain in a voice piercing enough to be heard clear across the room.
The restaurant waitstaff looked at Alva with increasing distress, but she just lifted her chin a little higher and followed the waiter to her table. She trusted her family name (or one of them, at least) still counted enough that she wasn’t going to get tossed out of Delmonico’s just yet. Even black sheep get to retain some of their perks.
The white-mustached man waiting at the table looked distinctly uncomfortable, but he stood politely when she arrived. His fine wool suit mimicked the attire of the men around him, but no one in the restaurant would need to look at the slightly ill-fitting cut or the too-ostentatious buttons to know he was not one of them. They would know, because New York’s upper crust kept track of their own.
“Mr. Smithson?” Alva held out her hand. After an almost imperceptible hesitation, he took it.
“Mrs. Webster,” he said.
“It’s so nice to meet you in person.”
He waited until she was seated before he sat down again, clearing his throat and adjusting the crystal water glass in front of him. Echoes of his discomfort registered in the tightness of her chest and stomach, but she forced herself to ignore the feeling that hundreds of daggers were sailing towards her back. She could have told him this was how it would be, but he had insisted they meet at a restaurant instead of at his offices, and she wanted to meet him badly enough to agree.
The waiter appeared again, hovering at Smithson’s right elbow, and her companion recovered himself enough to discuss the evening’s menu. Alva occupied herself by scanning the room, noticing the restaurant had been redecorated sometime in the last twelve years. Green brocade paper now covered every inch of the walls, coordinating oppressively with the dark green velvet curtains. Crystal glinted in the low lamplight, and the air was hazy with smoke. An enormous painting of a ship being tossed on stormy seas dominated one end of the room.
“Well, Mrs. Webster,” Smithson said, clearing his throat again. “I hope your journey was pleasant?”
“Very smooth,” she said. Her ship had docked two days ago, and in a few days more it would return to France without her. Not for the first time, she wondered what on earth she thought she was doing.
“You must be pleased to be home?” he said, continuing without waiting for a response. “We—Braeburn and Smithson, that is—were very flattered you chose our publishing house to direct your query to.”
It was a gracious thing to say, considering the general mood in the room, and her smile became a little easier. “I was very impressed with your firm’s work on The Principles of Interior Decoration,” she said, taking a delicate sip of water intended to show the rest of the room how at ease she was. The angry whispers were still buzzing around her. “I thought the photographs you included were especially helpful. You were an obvious choice for my own work.”
The waiter returned to pour their wine, and Alva saw Mrs. Henry Biddington sail from the room in fury, her sister and two daughters trailing meekly behind. One of the girls snuck a glance in Alva’s direction as she left, as though she wanted one last look at the tiger before she had to leave the zoo.
“Yes,” Smithson said. “I must tell you, though, we’re not convinced the market will bear another home decoration book, so soon after Mrs. Bellingham’s. Your angle, though … it’s interesting, at least. You’ve concluded the purchase of the house?”
“I signed the papers yesterday,” she said. Smithson’s shoulders had relaxed slightly since they’d started talking about business. She thought, overall, that she could have done worse with her choice of publisher. Now she just had to convince him to feel the same about her. “Work should start there next week.”
The house was the basis upon which the whole mad project rested. The plan was to take a house that was on the cusp of being torn down, turn it into a showpiece of modern design ideas, and document the entire process in a book, along with photographs, illustrations, and general design principles that anyone could follow. Even now she could picture the keys to her new house sitting on her desk at the hotel, a certain imagined sheen glowing around them. They were extremely metaphorical keys.
“The Principles of Interior Decoration is an excellent book,” she said, “but it’s directed almost entirely to a very small, very wealthy portion of society. This must, by necessity, limit its sales. My book would attempt to distill my experience refitting Liefdehuis—that’s the name of the house—into ideas the middle class could apply as well. There are a lot more people in that category than in the upper class, and they still have money to spare on books and home decoration schemes.”
“We have been looking for titles for that audience,” he said. He looked over her shoulder again, but this time with an appraising gleam.
The gleam was what she’d counted on when she’d sent the letter proposing her book, that the publisher would realize exactly how many people were likely to buy a book—any book, even one on the tasteful decoration of houses—written by the infamous Mrs. Webster. She just had to hope that once they had the book, some of them would keep reading even after they realized it was unlikely to contain any titillating revelations. After that … if even a handful liked what she had to say, respected the content of the book, if not its author, she thought she’d be content.
She decided to give him a little extra push. “And, as you know, my recent … exposure in the press … will ensure the book receives more than the usual amount of attention.”
“Exposure” was a faint word to describe the two years she’d spent being pilloried in the newspapers, but “crucifixion” seemed a touch dramatic.
Smithson’s eyes narrowed. “Not particularly positive attention,” he said. “Boycotts, protests, maybe even some burnings. We have the other books on our title list to consider.”
Alva took a deep breath. He wanted to publish it; she just had to get him over this last hill. “There will probably be some fuss, yes,” she said. “But the more people are outraged, the more they’ll talk about it, and the more people will want to buy a copy to see what the fuss is about. After all, think how many books it takes to make a bonfire.”
His lips twitched, just a little, and she knew she almost had him. He stroked his mustache thoughtfully while the waiter laid the first course—molded fish pâté—in front of them. She took a small bite and let him think.
“You’re not what I expected,” he said abruptly. “I hope I don’t offend you if I tell you that I mostly agreed to this meeting out of curiosity. But now … now I think I’m very glad I did.”
There. Her smile widened, and she leaned forward, conspiratorially. “I’m glad you did, too, Mr. Smithson. I think we’ll make a great deal of money together.”
“My favorite amount,” he said, lifting his glass. “To Mrs. Webster’s Guide to Home Decoration.”
“Oh,” she said as he touched his glass to hers. “I was thinking—I had proposed—the book be called A Ladies’ Guide—”
Fully in his element now, he took a large forkful of the pâté. “Too restrained,” he said. “If we’re going to trade on your notoriety, there’s no reason to be tactful about it. We should be slapping your name on every surface we can.”
Of course, it was Alain’s name, not really hers. Perhaps—
“Could it be Alva Webster’s Guide?” she asked.
He shook his head, taking a long draught of wine. “People know you as Mrs. Webster,” he explained. “Alva Webster could be anybody, but Mrs. Webster, the scandalous widow, everybody knows her. Now, the details…”
It didn’t matter, she told herself. It might be Alain’s name on the outside, but it would still be her work on the inside.
* * *
The restaurant was hot, the air smelled bad, and Sam’s tie was choking him. He never would have put the damn thing on if Henry, his lawyer and business partner, hadn’t bullied him into it, and now he was regretting it. Looking wistfully out the heavily becurtained windows at the New York lights beyond, he sighed. Somewhere out there was his laboratory, which had windows, excellent air circulation, and a casual dress code. He took an experimental sip of the whiskey someone had put in front of him and grimaced. Alcohol had many interesting properties; he wasn’t sure taste was one of them.
It wasn’t an opinion shared by the men he and Henry were dining with, a white-haired, red-faced, round-stomached man whose name Sam had already forgotten and his son, who would look exactly like his father in twenty years. If he lasted that long, which wasn’t a sure thing going by the number of cocktails the man had tossed back since the beginning of the meal.
Ah, the beginning of the meal. Sam remembered it fondly, like the memory of a long-distant summer holiday. In his naïveté, he’d thought the whole business would be over in an hour. He’d thought that a generous estimate, actually—how much time could people spend eating? When he was back at the lab he could get the whole meal done in about fifteen minutes, and that was when he didn’t just gobble down some cold meat and bread.
This meal was entering its fourth hour. It was agonizing. Inhumane.
“I think you’ll find that if you go with my company, young man, this will just be the beginning of the perks.” The old man’s mustache had … things … in it. “Parties! Supper at Delmonico’s every night! Balls! We can offer you something more than just sordid lucre, you know. We can offer you an entree into society itself!”
“And we appreciate that, Mr. Denton,” Henry said, “but I’m afraid we must also discuss the investment itself.…”
Sam withdrew his attention from the discussion. There was no need for him to be involved in the money talks, and he’d just had an interesting idea about a lamp containing linked carbon blocks. He settled back in his chair and idly scanned the opulent room, feeling vaguely smothered by the dark green surroundings. The trick would be choosing the right material to sandwich between the blocks, he thought, patting his jacket idly for his notebook and looking down in confusion when the familiar lump failed to appear. It obviously hadn’t made the transition between his normal clothes and the ridiculous formal suit Henry had turned up with tonight.
“Henry,” he said, interrupting some point the elder Denton was making about commodity trading. “Do you have a pen?”
Henry pulled out a pen from the inside of his jacket and handed it to Sam without missing a beat in the conversation. Sam looked around for his napkin, found it on the floor by his feet, smoothed it carefully out on the table, and began to sketch.
“Err—” Denton senior leaned across the table and lowered his voice, incorrectly assuming, like many before him, that Sam’s lack of attention denoted a lack of hearing. “Is he always like this?”
“You know how genius operates,” Henry said, falling into the practiced words with ease. “Their intellect engages with the world in a different way from our own.…”
Copyright © 2019 by Diana Biller