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Gilded by Gaslight September 24, 2012

Posted by J. in Genius.
Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

As part of Reader’s Choice Monday, Lenny asked what I could do with the phrase “Gilded by Gaslight.” I went to college in Newport, Rhode Island and the phrase made me think of the Cliff Walk and of the Gilded Age mansions that served as summer cottages for the social elite.  I came up with this bit of short fiction. 


Alice slipped out of her room, her bare feet gliding noiselessly over the highly polished wood floors.

The house was still and quiet so close to midnight. The grandfather clock in her father’s library chimed the quarter hour, its deep, sonorous ring echoing out into the great hall and disappearing into the painted fresco high over her head.

She pulled her dressing gown of fine, white cambric around her and crept down the long hall without a sound, for she knew that while the house seemed to be sleeping, a squadron of workers—both live-in and hired for the occasion—were toiling away behind closed doors preparing the house for her wedding the next day.

She paid no more attention to them than she would have the gentle horses in the stable or a hive of busy bees in the back garden. The closed doors she passed on tiptoe were packed to capacity with out-of-town relatives and close friends who would be scandalized to see the bride-to-be courting bad luck by slipping out of her room to see her fiance before the ceremony.

Alice didn’t fear bad luck. But as she lay in her bed with the eiderdown tucked up against the omnipresent Newport breeze, she struggled to breathe, her chest growing tighter with each tick of the mantle clock. She had opened the window and leaned on the sill hoping the music of the ocean and the fresh, salty sea air would calm her nerves, but the call of the waves crashing and breaking over the rocky cliffs that surrounded their summer “cottage” grated on her nerves and the smell of sea spray on the wind made her feel jumpy and unsettled.

She paused outside Richard’s door, her slender hand on the polished brass doorknob. She knew he was likely sound asleep and would be cranky at being waked at so late an hour. He was fastidious in his personal habits and a slave to schedule and she hesitated to wake him. She knew he would likely be short with her for waking him, and as dismissive of her nerves the night before their wedding as he frequently was with anything he waved off as mere “womanly concerns.”

Taking a deep breath to compose herself, she rested her forehead against the door. She knew this oppressive, caged in feeling was probably nothing more than bridal jitters, and she knew once she saw Richard’s face and heard his reassurances that they would be happy together forever, that she would be able to sleep soundly.

She knocked softly and turned the knob, opening the heavy door and letting in a sliver of amber light shine on the large mahogany bed.

Richard seemed to be tossing restlessly beneath the rumpled white sheets, his legs kicking and twisting, and she could hear his breathing coming labored and deep.

Richard?” she said softly, her face contorting with worry for him.

A face turned and looked at her, but it was not his dark head and glittering eyes staring back at hers. A young girl, clearly a housemaid by the uniform draped carelessly over the foot of the bed, sat up and turned her head to stare wide-eyed at Alice. Her blonde curls tumbled down her back and she gasped, grabbing the sheet and covering herself and she slid cowering out of Richard’s arms and off the high bed. Alice watched, horrified as the girl fumbled into her dress and ran from the room, leaving her shoes and stockings behind.

Richard said nothing but sat up with a bemused smirk on his lips, reaching for the cigarette case on his nightstand. He struck a match and lit the tip, extinguishing the flame with a stream of smoke. He lay back comfortably against the pillows, his manhood swollen and purple and she put her hand over her mouth in digust. “Can I dare hope you were coming to take her place?” He asked, raising one eyebrow rakishly at her.

How could you?” she stammered. “We’re supposed to be…”

Married. Tomorrow. Yes, I know.”

Alice’s eyes filled with tears and her voice seemed small in the large room. “I thought you loved me.”

Richard inhaled deeply making the tip of the cigarette glow red in the dimly lit room. “That’s the problem with letting girls read,” he said, breathing out another thin stream of smoke. “You fill your heads with romantic drivel and waste your time on childish fantasy. Surely your mother sat you down and explained how marriage works.”

Alice said nothing but felt a hot tear run down her cheek. Her mother had explained in very terse, very hushed tones what was expected of her as a wife. She alluded to men and their animal needs and how they would need, on occasion, to debase themselves with lower class women, but that a gentleman would never allow that to interfere with his duties as a husband and impressed upon Alice that a lady would never allow his extra-marital necessities to interfere with her duties as a wife.

She never believed it of Richard. Whether she was in his arms, stealing kisses beneath a rose-covered arbor on one of their late afternoon walks, or on his arm, his eyes full of pride as he displayed his future wife, she felt certain of his love for her. She was as sure as the sunrise over Narragansett Bay that he only had eyes for her.

To see him with another woman—scarcely a woman, even—on the eve of their wedding was bad enough, but that he would show no remorse, no shame; that he wouldn’t even attempt to hide his animal lusts from her was more than she could process. The fist that had been squeezing her heart all evening tightened so that she thought she would cry out from the pain.

Her mind reeled and she felt faint, and turning unsteadily on her heels, she bolted from the room, running down the hall towards the grand staircase. She heard him behind her, and looked over her shoulder to see him pulling on a dressing gown and following her. “Don’t be a damned fool!” he called after her in a harsh whisper. “This changes nothing.”

A strangled cry escaped her lips, a primal sound of pain and shattered dreams. As her feet hit the parquet of the great hall, she pivoted and turned to the mirrored ballroom, running through the great doors into the room readied for their wedding ceremony. The gilded plaster shone in the gaslight and the heady smell of orange blossoms and gardenia assaulted her in a wall of cloying fragrance. The sight of everything white and gold and shining, so full of promise and joy swam before her eyes, her tears making the images smear and run together.

Richard was behind her, breathing hard. “Alice,” he said sternly. “That girl meant nothing to me. She is nothing. You will be my wife and mistress of a house every bit as grand as this one…”

His hand was on her arm and she pulled it away, tearing the fine fabric of her gown in her disgust. “Don’t touch me.”

Richard grabbed her again, his fingers digging into her upper arm. “You will be my wife and I will touch you whenever I want.” His voice softened slightly, but his hand remained firm. “I am fond of you and will do my best to make sure you have everything you want, and you will do the same.”

Alice turned her dark eyes to his. She felt her lip tremble as she spoke. “All I ever wanted was your love.”

She jerked her arm away and ran for the French doors, throwing them open and running out across finely manicured lawns. The grass was soft and cool beneath her feet and she heard the roar of the breakers in the distance grow louder as she ran. She ran toward the ocean, toward the high cliffs and salty, stinging spray.

Alice! Stop!” Richard shouted after her as she ran out onto the exposed rock and felt her way across the cold, slippery surface. Her foot slipped and she felt the salt water sting and burn as her flesh was laid open by a jagged piece of sea stone. The pain felt real and she clung to it like a lifeline. She picked her way down over the face of the rock, following a well-worn, steep path across the cliff face worn irregular by the incessant pounding of the tides. Her thin gown was wet with spray and she shivered as it clung to her body.

Richard’s voice was growing louder, and higher in pitch as nervousness began to creep into it. “Alice! What are you doing? Please stop and come back up here. We can talk about this–”

A wave crashed against the rocks and forced her back against the cliff face, slapping her with an icy hand. She inhaled sharply from the shock and felt the iron fist in her chest release and slip away with the tides.

She was free, here by the sea. The crashing and rushing of the waves, the cold cleansing baptism of the Atlantic meeting the shore, the fathomless depths called to her and promised her a life outside of her gilded cage. No marital duties to be performed. No loveless eyes ignoring her over breakfast every morning only to rake over the housemaids and scullery girls in appraisal. No need for being concerned over manners and deportment and remaining calm and unflappable in all circumstances.

The ocean was wild and untamed. Free.

Calmly, she stepped to the edge of the rock and leaned towards the dark water, smiling as a wall of water broke of the rock. She gave herself over to its cold embrace, falling with it, letting it pull her into its bed.

The last thing she heard was a crunch and saw a blinding flash of golden light as her head dashed against a sharp rock.

As Richard watched her white clad body carried out with the tide, her dark hair in a bloody fan around her head, she felt nothing but the warm peace of deep sleep.



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