by Lorna Seilstad
Council Bluffs, Iowa, 1895
If forced to endure Roger Gordon for five more minutes, Marguerite Westing would die. Dead. Gone. Buried. Six feet under Greenlawn Cemetery.
Her parents would need to purchase a large headstone to fit all the words of the epitaph, but they could do it. Money wasn’t an issue, and after bearing this unbelievable torture,
she deserved an enormous marble marker complete with a plethora of flowery engravings. She could see the words now:
Here lies Marguerite Westing.
Only nineteen, but now she’s resting.
Strolling through the park with Roger Gordon,
Once full of life, she died of boredom.
Roger stopped on the cobblestone path of the park and frowned at her. “I don’t see anything funny about my uncle Myron’s carbuncle, Marguerite.”
“I’m sorry. My mind wandered for a minute.”
“You do seem prone to that. Perhaps you should work on your self-control.” He patted her hand, lodged in the crook of his arm, like a parent would an errant child.
And perhaps you should work on making yourself more interesting than milk toast. She bit her lip hard to keep the words from escaping. Good grief. What did he expect when he was talking to her about a boil?
“Now, as I was saying, Uncle Myron . . .” He droned on, his dark mustache twitching like a wriggling fuzzy caterpillar on his upper lip. “Marguerite, are you listening?”
She forced a smile. “Of course I am. How terrible for your dear uncle.”
This whole ordeal was her mother’s fault. If her mother hadn’t insisted she accept Roger’s attentions, she could be home enjoying her newest book about the stars.
After the tedious monotony killed her this afternoon, she hoped her parents would make sure her final resting place would have a view of the Iowa bluffs, and that they wouldn’t
let Roger know where they’d buried her. After all, he’d insist on bringing flowers to her grave and would probably stay for a long, carbuncle-filled visit. No. They mustn’t tell him where she was. She couldn’t spend all of eternity listening to him. This afternoon was long enough.
Around the park, crab-apple trees exploded with crimson blossoms and lilacs perfumed the air. How could one man ruin such a spectacular summer day?
The clang of the streetcar’s bell drew her attention, and she turned to see it clickety-clack past the two-story brick-and frame storefronts. Horse-drawn carriages and busy patrons
bustled out of the car’s way. It snaked its way down Main Street and made an easy turn onto Broadway, disappearing into the business district. Marguerite sighed. If only she could go with it.
Then she spotted the striped awning of the ice cream parlor on the corner directly across from the park. Salvation.
She squeezed her escort’s arm. “Roger, let’s get a soda.”
He gaped at her, his spectacles sliding down his nose. “But it’s still morning!”
“Oh, fiddle-faddle. For the life of me, I can’t see what harm there is to drink a soda before lunch.”
She wanted to swat the caterpillar off his scowling face. “Can’t we at least get that new ice cream with the syrup on top? The sundae?”
“Very well. I suppose you are used to being indulged.” He drew his hand over his mustache, smoothing the sides, andpushed up his spectacles.
His flippant words stung. And what about you, Roger Gordon, son of one of the wealthiest men in the state? “Indulged” should be your middle name.
She clamped down on her lip so hard she tasted blood. Glancing heavenward, she sent up a silent message. If You want the world to end right now, God, it’s fine with me.
Upon entering the ice cream parlor, Marguerite disentangled her hand from Roger’s arm. She selected a wood-topped round table out in the open before he could lead her to one of the darkened booths where the courting fellows often took their girls. Roger ordered two bowls of vanilla ice cream—no syrup, no nuts, no berries—without consulting her tastes.
Bland. Plain. Boring. Just like him.
He carried the scalloped bowls to the table and presented hers as if it were pure ambrosia.
After waiting until he sat in the heart-shaped iron dining chair, she picked up her spoon and dove into the treat. She scooped a spoonful into her mouth, and the creamy sweetness
melted on her tongue, almost making up for the agony of the late morning stroll.
“For what these cost, we could have purchased a chair for our first home.”
She dropped her spoon and it clattered against the bowl, the blissful taste replaced by a bitter one. Coughing, she waved her hand in front of her face. “Roger, please don’t jest like that.”
“I wasn’t jesting.”
Marguerite cringed as he covered her hand with his own. Please, Lord, strike him with muteness. Strike him with lightning. Strike him with anything. I don’t care what. You choose the pestilence. Have fun. Be creative. Enjoy Yourself. Just don’t let him say another word.
With a tug, she tried to pull her hand away, but he held fast.
“Surely, Marguerite, you’ve been able to see where our courting has been leading.”
She could almost hear God’s laughter. He must take great enjoyment in watching her squirm. It was punishment for the ungodly thoughts that ran rampant through her mind.
Right now, for instance, she was seriously contemplating a murder—that of her mother.
Seeking the solace of the piano, Marguerite stomped into the parlor only to find her mother already in the room. Ignoring her, she sat on the bench and began to play an angry aria, pouring her frustration into the polished ivory keys.
“That’s enough of that,” her mother snapped minutes later, closing her leather-bound volume with a thud. “I take it things did not go well with Roger.”
“I simply cannot endure one more outing with that man.”
Her mother set the book on the marble-topped table beside her. “Theatrics are not becoming, Marguerite, and it can’t be that bad. Roger Gordon is from an excellent family.”
“But he’s a miserable man to be with. He bores me to tears.”
“Then you must engage him in more interesting topics. Please tell me that you did not let your lack of enthusiasm show.”
“He talked about his uncle Myron’s carbuncle for fifteen minutes!”
Her mother appeared to stifle a smile. “Still, he’s a good catch. You’d be well taken care of.”
“Taken care of? It’s 1895, and more and more women are taking care of themselves. Besides, I could never love him.”
“Love is highly overrated.” She waved her hand in the air, pausing as one of the household servants delivered a tea tray. Waiting while the young woman poured a steaming cup, she kept her gaze on Marguerite. “Why can’t you be like your older sister? She is well matched.”
Marguerite rolled her eyes. “Being well matched is highly overrated.”
Her mother shot her a stern look and touched her coiffed chignon to make sure all her golden hairs remained in place. Of course they were. They wouldn’t dare defy Camille Westing and come loose.
War was imminent. Marguerite had thrown down the gauntlet. Steeling herself, she met her mother’s hard blue eyes. “I don’t want him to call again.”
“What you want isn’t the issue here. We’re your parents, and we must see to your future—a future that should consist of you being cared for in the manner to which you’re accustomed. If you are lucky, Roger will ask for your hand soon.”
“If I’m lucky,” Marguerite murmured, “Roger Gordon will be attacked by a pack of wolves on his way home.”
“Marguerite! That’s incorrigible. You should be ashamed.”
“You didn’t suffer through hours of boredom. I have to speak to Daddy about this. He won’t give my hand to a man whose idea of adventure is choosing a patterned vest over a
solid. I’d wither and die in a matter of months if I married him.”
“Don’t exaggerate.” Her mother poured a second cup of tea and nodded toward the empty seat beside her. “Do come have tea with me and calm yourself. I have an additional item
to discuss with you.”
Discuss? Marguerite’s stomach cinched. Whenever her mother began a talk in that way, it meant she intended to address something Marguerite would dislike, and there would be no discussion whatsoever. Marguerite’s fingers clutched the lid of the piano to keep her from bolting from the room. This whole day had felt like one prison after another, and now her mother’s worrisome comment slammed the jail door shut with an ominous clang.
“What is it?” she asked, refusing to join her mother on the settee.
Her mother set the teapot down on the tray. “I’m going to dismiss Lilly.”
The news robbed Marguerite of her breath. Dropping the piano lid with a clunk, she jumped to her feet. “Mother, you can’t send her away just like that! I won’t let you!”
“You’d better control your tongue, young lady. And I will do as I wish with those in our employ.” She reached for her needlework.
“Employ? Is that what you call it?”
“I believe you’ve made your position on our help quite clear.” She pinned Marguerite with her steely blue gaze. “Your father may allow you to speak your opinions so openly, but I do not. Besides, you know we have always paid the Dawsons well.”
“You pay enough for them to survive, but never leave. Her family came to Iowa with dreams of going West.”
Her mother fired another warning look in her direction. “That was years ago, and before Alice lost her husband. She’s lucky we took her in to cook and let her bring Lilly along. And now it’s time for Lilly to find her own place of employment and make friends with those of her own station.”
Hot coals of anger burned deep inside Marguerite. I know, I know—be slow to speak. Slow to become angry. But do You have to make it so hard? She inhaled a steadying breath. “Mother, how can you send her, of all people, away? She’s like my sister.”
Her mother took a sip from her teacup and released an exasperated sigh. “Must you always make waves, Marguerite? Lilly is not your sister. She’s your chambermaid. I admit you are obviously fond of her—overly so.” She paused, giving her words weight. “But dear, you need to realize your position in society and understand her place is not beside you.”
A man cleared his throat in the parlor’s doorway.
“Daddy!” Marguerite launched herself into his arms.
He swung her in a circle and lowered her to the floor. “What’s all this? I thought I heard raised voices.”
“Mother is going to dismiss Lilly.”
Her father looked at his wife and raised an eyebrow. “Our Lilly?”
“Our staff is too large, and it needs to be trimmed. Marguerite doesn’t need a constant companion any longer. She’s nineteen and will be marrying soon.”
Irritated, Marguerite wrinkled her nose.
Her father appeared to bite back a chuckle and stroked his beard. “Well, I think we may need Lilly after all.” He dropped his long frame into a wing chair.
“Edward, you can’t keep babying her.” Her mother puckered her lips.
He held up his hand. “Hear me out, Camille. I’ve secured a camping site for us at Lake Manawa. Marguerite will not want to be in a tent by herself.”
Face ashen, her mother reached for her tea, the cup shaking in her hands. “We’re going to spend the summer outdoors?”
“Yes, isn’t it splendid? You know, all of the best families are doing it. I know the Grahams, the Deardons, the Longleys, and the Kelloggs have already set up campsites near the Grand Plaza. I was lucky to get one for us there at this late date. The season is already in full swing.”
“The whole season at the lake?” Marguerite squealed with delight.
“All summer long.”
“In tents?” Her mother’s lips thinned to a tight line.
“Yes, but we’ll take many of our things from the house.” Her father reached for the newspaper and shook it open.
Her mother cleared her throat. “But Edward, dear, what about your work?”
“I’ll take the streetcar into town every morning, but that shouldn’t keep my son and the two beautiful women in my life from enjoying the greatest entertainment mecca of the
“And Lilly?” Marguerite dared to ask.
Her father grinned. “Well, I do believe you’ll need your personal maid to keep all your party dresses in order. Don’t you think? Now, go tell your brother the news.”
Mosquitoes swarmed around Marguerite’s head, tangling themselves in the netting of her new summer hat. She swatted them away with a gloved hand and smiled, refusing to let one minute of what her mother insisted on calling her “last summer of freedom” to be wasted on something as petty as insects.
The camping area her father had arranged was at the end of one of the long rows of tents. Well-established oak trees offered shade, and with neighbors only on their right side, they would have more privacy than most of the families. In front of their tents, a path led from the camp to the Grand Plaza. In the rear, a tree-lined service road provided access to area farms for fresh produce.
“Edward, can’t you hurry them along? I think the whole lot must be dawdling.” Cheeks flushed, her mother waved a fan in front of her face. She used the lacy instrument to point toward the area where their household servants struggled to erect the last of the four tents that would make up the Westing family summer home. Her parents would have the large tent like hers and Lilly’s. The cook’s tent and her brother’s tent, which he would share with Isaiah, one of the male servants, were each considerably smaller.
Two weeks had passed since her father’s announcement, and her mother had needed every moment to organize supplies and furniture for the lake home. A wagon loaded with their belongings sat a few yards away. Although Marguerite kept insisting they didn’t need a silver tea service at the lake, a blanket lay on her mother’s precious server, and a bit of the shiny surface reflected the bright sun. That, along with pots, pans, brass beds, feather mattresses, and Wedgwood china, would bring all the comforts of home into their tiny tents—even if home was only a few miles away.
The two male servants, Clay and Lewis, stretched a large sheet of heavy canvas over the two center poles and then covered the four corner poles in record time, but Camille grumbled about how slowly the two men worked. At least they would be returning to the main house in town.
Marguerite glanced at her mother and noticed a shimmer of perspiration beading her face. She touched her mother’s arm. “They should be done soon. Why don’t we go sit in the shade?”
“That’s a wonderful idea.” Without hesitation, her father scooped up two folding camp stools and carried them to the nearest tree. He snapped them open, patted one of the canvas seats, took his wife’s hand, and seated her. “There, darling. I told you that you’d enjoy camping.”
“Humph.” Her mother settled on the stool and smoothed her green traveling dress until it appeared wrinkle free. “I’ll have to watch over the staff like a hawk. All these diversions will have them dallying constantly. And Marguerite, don’t you think for a minute that I won’t have time to keep an eye on you as well.”
“What about Mark?” She turned to see her twelve-year-old brother attempting to help Clay but getting shooed from the area.
“Mark’s a boy. Exploring is what boys do.”
Marguerite sighed and watched as the two burly servants each took a diagonal corner of the canvas and pulled it tight. Almost in unison, they drove in stakes to secure the tent in place.
“Are you listening to me?” her mother said.
“Yes, Mother, I heard you, and I assure you that I don’t need to be watched like some child.”
Her father patted Camille’s arm. “She’s right, darling. Our little girl is a young woman, and by next summer she’ll be setting up a camp of her own.” He winked at Marguerite.
She grimaced. Mosquitoes might not ruin this day, but a reminder that her mother expected acceptance of any proposal Roger Gordon might offer, even in jest, certainly would.
Feeling smothered by more than the late June heat, she rose from her chair. “If you’ll both excuse me, I think I’ll go look around. I believe I saw the Grahams’ camp on the way in, and I’d like to say hello to Emily.”
“Don’t wander too far off,” her mother said as if the effort to speak had drained her. “We’re expected for dinner at Louie’s French Restaurant with the Underwoods promptly at 6:30.”
“Mother, we’re at the lake. It’s in vogue to be late.”
A deep scowl marred her mother’s perfect complexion. “As Westings, we are always prompt. It would serve you well to remember that.”
Willowy Emily Graham, who was a couple years younger than Marguerite, jumped from her camp chair and ran to greet Marguerite. “When did you arrive? Is that your camp that’s being set up down the way?”
“Yes, it was Daddy’s idea to summer here at the lake.”
“We arrived three weeks ago. Let me go grab my hat and parasol and I’ll show you around.”
She rushed off before Marguerite could even answer, then returned just as quickly. Linking her arm in Marguerite’s, Emily directed her down the pebbled path. “Now, where should we go first? Oh, I know. The Grand Plaza.”
Soon they were walking beside the lake on the paved, tree-lined walkway leading to the social center of the resort on the northeast side. They passed the main pavilion with its red-tiled roof and crisp white veranda.
“Inside there’s a restaurant, a refreshment bar, a dance floor, and several meeting areas.” Emily squeezed Marguerite’s arm. “Did you know they even have a telephone? If you pay the fee, you can call as far as New York!”
Progressing further, Marguerite noticed that besides the various vendors around the Grand Plaza, there were several additional larger structures on the shore. When questioned, Emily named each of them: the Yacht Club, a boat shop, and two icehouses. Across the lake, on the south side, fewer buildings dotted the area. “Emily, how big is this lake?”
“My father says it’s about six miles around, but it’s more crescent-shaped than circular.” She pointed to the center of the lake. “The big island in the middle is Coney Island and the smaller one is Turtle Island. See those rowboats? You can rent them from the Yacht Club.”
Before long, Emily had paraded them through the Grand Plaza, headed toward the sandy beach to show Marguerite the dive tower and toboggan runs, and given her a history of the lake, which was formed in 1881 after a flood. Emily explained that the south side was called Manhattan Beach, as the developer, Mr. O’Dell, wanted it to have an Eastern feel.
Marguerite and Emily sat down at a park bench as the wind carried a cool breeze over the water. Marguerite released a slow breath. “It’s so peaceful here.”
Emily giggled. “It should be. Manawa is an Indian word meaning ‘peace.’”
“I sure hope it lives up to its name. I could use a little peace.” Away from humdrum Roger Gordon.
As they returned to Emily’s camp, thoughts of Roger suddenly spurred Marguerite’s memory. “Good heavens. I’m going to be late. Emily, please forgive me. I have to leave. I’m supposed to be meeting my parents for dinner at 6:30.”
“Hurry. I can only imagine what your mother is like when you’re late. Do you remember the way back to the pavilion?”
Marguerite nodded and rushed down the path. If she didn’t stop at her own camp to freshen up, she might make it.
Skirting the deck chairs lining the pier, Marguerite held on to her hat and ran as fast as she dared toward the enormous pavilion. Her mother would be furious. She shouldn’t have spent so much time wandering around the lake with Emily.
But it had been delightful, and it had confirmed her hopes. Her heart skipped like a child’s on Christmas Eve just thinking about a summer full of excitement.
She came to a halt in front of a young man sweeping the boardwalk and pressed a hand to her stomach, attempting to catch her breath. “Excuse me. Would you by chance know the time?”
He checked his pocket watch. “It’s 6:30, miss.”
“Oh no. Which door of the pavilion do I enter to reach Louie’s French Restaurant?”
“Louie’s is on the other side of the lake, miss, not inside the pavilion. If you hurry, you can catch the steamboat over there. She’s headed across the lake.”
“Thank you,” she called over her shoulder as she hurried toward the end of the dock where passengers boarded the steamboat Liberty.
“Miss,” the attendant shouted, “I wouldn’t rush if I were
you. The planking gets pretty slick this time of night.”
The warning registered a fraction of a second too late as she skidded on the dock. Her arms flailing, her feet flew out from under her, and she fell headlong into the lake, the murky water swallowing her. Frantic, she searched in vain for something—anything—to hold on to. Kicking with all her might, she resurfaced, only to have her dress entangle her legs. Then, without warning, the lake claimed her again.