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The House Where Isadora Danced
By J. O. Jeppson
AuthorHouseCopyright © 2009 J. O. Jeppson
All right reserved.
Chapter OneBy 1898, Casselda Carver had lived all her life in a small wooden farmhouse on the outskirts of the village of Powetville. She'd never seen a dancer. She did not want to perform on a stage, but she had secret dreams about living in big beautiful houses made of stone.
She knew the one she wanted, for it was in a collection of picture postcards that Aunt Bettine had sent to the Carvers when Cass was seven. She had instantly claimed the collection as her own.
Most of the postcards were of European castles, but some were of great houses of the American rich. Cass had fallen in love with the smallest of those famous American houses, a stone mansion in a village much closer to Powetville than Newport or New York City. On the back of the postcard was printed "Vannlin House, Elmgrove, New York."
"Why do you like stone houses?" Will had asked, the first and only time she talked with him about the postcards.
"Stone won't burn the way the barn did," she'd said.
"I didn't know that fire in the barn bothered you so much. Nobody died and Pa got all the cows out. Gee, Cassie, you were only six."
Now she was sixteen, and graduating from high school, which meant that Aunt Bettine would arrive to see her niece give thevaledictorian speech.
Cass read the speech once more to herself. It was the best she could do. Will had liked it, and that made it ok.
He stuck his head into the cubbyhole Cass called her bedroom. "Are you ready? Aunt Bettine is due and we ought to get to the school."
"Oh, Will, Aunt Bettine will look down her nose at me. I'm too tall, too gawky, and I can't do a thing right with this blasted red hair."
"You look fine. Come on, Cassie."
"And I wasn't meant to be valedictorian. Toby Zale should have been ..."
Will grunted. "No point in being upset about that. It's not your fault he quit school, enlisted in the Marines, and died during the invasion of Guantanamo Bay. You are smarter than he was, anyway."
Cass smiled, for she could always count on Will to try to make her feel better. He was seventeen and had been valedictorian the previous year, much deserved. Not quite as tall as Cass, Will had straight brown hair like his father's, a broad open face, and a limp.
"And Cassie, stop worrying about your speech. I think it's important to say that the Spanish board of inquiry might have been right. Maybe the Maine did blow up by accident, and the war was a mistake."
Cass nodded and picked up her speech to take it to the school. She was relieved that Aunt Bettine was not downstairs. Hetty said Bettine would meet them at the school, where Cass had time only for a quick, nervous "Hello" before she had to join her graduating class.
She surprised herself by feeling quite calm when she gave her speech. As she spoke the most controversial part, that if women had the vote there wouldn't have been a war, she saw Aunt Bettine nod and smile, while poor Hetty and Dan-shamed-slumped in their seats.
Evan scowled, for at five years older than Cass, he believed in the intrinsic superiority of the male gender, from bulls to men, as did most of the Powetville audience, rural farmers and shopkeepers all.
After the graduation ceremony, with Cass clutching her diploma, the family went back to the farmhouse and Hetty put out what was, for the Carvers, a lavish lunch, saying it was a treat for the graduate.
Cass was sure the lunch was meant to show Aunt Bettine that the farm was doing well, which it wasn't-but the cows did give good milk and cream, the eggs were fresh, the just-picked lettuce crisp, and Evan's new wife Marnie had made her special muffins studded with early strawberries.
Evan and Marnie lived with the family. Everyone knew that someday, when Dan died, the farm went to Evan. This didn't bother Will because he was going to be a doctor but Cass wondered how she'd manage living there if she never got married. Marnie couldn't understand girls who read books and didn't want to marry the well-to-do farmer next door. And it had always been hard to get to know Evan-he was far ahead in school, said very little at home, did his work, ate his food, and now spent his spare time in his bedroom with Marnie, working at starting a family.
Cass noticed that Hetty and Dan were obviously tense, sitting at opposite ends of the farm table, trying to be nice to a their only rich relative. Dan seemed more gray and stooped than usual, while Hetty's hand shook slightly on the coffee cup, and her frizzy red hair was thin and shot with silver.
At fifty, Hetty Browning Carver at least had living children, even if they all lived in a small, downtrodden farmhouse with no indoor plumbing.
Hetty's sister Bettine Browning Green Larke, five years older, had once been the belle of Powetville and had married the potential mayor, only to lose him and her twin babies to diphtheria. Then she had escaped to New York, where she worked-nobody was quite sure at what-and had preserved her elegant figure and vibrant red hair.
Cass wondered if maybe the hair was touched up. And what it had been like for that rather secretive New York widow to end up marrying an elderly British peer. During the years Bettine lived in England, she hadn't visited the farm, but now Lord Larke was dead and she had announced this visit.
Cass knew that Dan and Hetty got several checks from Bettine during the year, and always had. Nobody-not the Carvers, not Bettine-ever actually mentioned the family poverty, but Cass felt it was always on everyone's mind.
"And now," said Bettine, "it's time to discuss the future of your latest valedictorian. I have plans for her. She is to live with me in New York City, spend the summer at cultural events, and then go to college."
"Cultural events?" asked Cass, who had never been to anything but Powetville's spring festival.
"You'll see. Since becoming a widow, I have resumed my work ..."
Cass saw Dan gulp, presumably because he'd always worried that Bettine's work might, just might be something scandalous.
"... My second husband left me quite well-off, but I enjoy writing for various magazines. I've also published a book called Larke's Guide to Better Fashion. I am now considered an authority, which pays well. I write not only about fashion but also about the cultural events which the most fashionable people attend. I am particularly fond of music and dance, and in Europe I saw and heard the best."
"Dancers?" Marnie asked. Cass was sure that Marnie, and probably everyone else, thought dancers were not quite respectable. "Oh, yes. Of course, I did not see Taglione dance in her father's creation, La Sylphide, but I saw her pupils. When dancers can no longer dance, they teach, and Taglione taught almost up to the time of her death."
Cass saw that Dan and Hetty seemed puzzled as to how their farm daughter would fit into all that. Evan yawned and left the table with Marnie.
Will stayed and asked, "Aunt Bettine, did you mean it that you'd send Cassie to college?"
"Yes, dear nephew, but after she has been exposed to fine culture and important people. Casselda, in a few weeks I will take you to one of the older and more exclusive suburbs of New York, called Elmgrove. A new young dancer named Duncan is to perform at Vannlin House, the home of the most prominent Elmgrove family."
"Vannlin House." Cass repeated the magic words as if they were an exotic code that someone had actually spoken aloud. She had never told even Will how much that postcard had made her yearn to live in that house.
Bettine nodded. "We must hurry to get you fitted with the proper clothes and"-she eyed Cass's unruly hair-"a good hair styling." She smoothed the impeccable satin of her skirt, pale green instead of widow's black.
"Aunt Bettine, it all sounds wonderful, but I can't go with you. I'm going to work to help Will finish college and get into medical school."
"Sis, I'm going to work my way through ..."
"No, you're not!" Cass shouted. "It will be hard enough for you because, because ..."
"I hardly limp any more, and there's such a shortage of doctors around here that I'll get in." Nobody mentioned that Will's lame leg happened when he fell off the new barn while trying to rescue seven-year-old Cass, who shouldn't have been climbing roofs in the first place.
"Anyway, Aunt Bettine, don't worry about me and college," Cass said, "because I can always have a couple of years at the state school in Galesburg."
"My dear niece, you cannot acquire culture in this rural setting. You must go to a first class college to enable you to have a good career. Then you will not have to be dependent on any man, even if you choose to marry-eventually."
"But what's wrong with a girl being dependent on her husband?" Hetty asked. As if she hadn't had to spend her life working beside Dan on the dairy farm, dependent on handouts from a mysterious sister.
Cass expected Hetty's next words.
"Besides, Cassie is going to marry the widower next door. We'll probably join farms ..."
"I'm not going to marry fat, stupid Bart Smith and take care of his fat, stupid children!"
Will, who knew all about this, said, "I agree with Aunt Bettine. Cass should have a great education."
"But ..." Dan began.
Bettine rose majestically, her amber-brown eyes glistening. "Dan Carver, I've known you since you were in knee britches, mooning after my sister, and I always knew you were smarter than you look. I knew you wanted to go to college but couldn't afford it. I can afford to give Casselda a remarkable education. Hetty, my niece doesn't have to marry anyone at the tender age of sixteen."
"You did," said Hetty, who hadn't.
Cass felt sorry for her, her body so tense with anxiety and shame. Hetty could never relax, for she feared that relaxing would render one vulnerable to being caught unawares by life's miseries. Hetty was an expert on miseries.
"Hetty, your marriage is a good one," said Bettine. "I'm not so sure my first would have been if it had lasted, although I'd have loved my boys ... well, they didn't survive. My greatest happiness came much later in life with my second marriage which, I assure you, I did not need financially by then."
"But Bettine ..." Dan began, in his slow way.
Bettine ignored him. "Casselda, you have the talent to do well. I agree with your speech. Wars are stupid, especially those based on revenge and thirst for acquisition. I do not believe we really need to acquire Puerto Rico and the Philippines. And Japan is already making threats because we want Hawaii. The world is complicated. In little Powetville-oh, Casselda, surely you see that going to New York ..."
"Is a good idea," Cass added, her stomach cramping from her desire to see Vannlin House. "I'm truly grateful that you're suggesting it, but I can't go. I really have to work, for Will."
Bettine said, "Casselda, let's go for a walk. Take me to your favorite place."
Cass led her on the dirt path winding up the hill in back of the farmhouse. Bettine's shoes seemed too expensive for the path, but she didn't complain. In fact, she walked briskly after adjusting her wide hat to shield her unlined face from the sun. When Cass undid the gate in the wood fence, Bettine strode through, up the hill pasture.
"Mind the cow pats, Aunt Bettine, but you don't have to worry about the cows because they're way down the other side of the hill."
"Just call me Bettine. I don't like being called 'Aunt' because it makes me feel old. I also don't want to be called 'Lady Larke'. That part of my life is over. And don't worry about me and cows. I was younger than you when I had to take them home to the barn."
"Is that why you left?"
"You have spunk, child, but remember that men don't usually like that." Bettine gazed out over the valley. "Child, I didn't escape just cows. I left the memories of my husband and babies, and I didn't want to look around for another husband in this dead village."
"Powetville isn't dead, and I don't like being called 'child' by someone who doesn't want to be called 'aunt'."
Bettine stared at Cass, who expected to be on the receiving end of an explosion of grievance, the way Hetty would have reacted.
Bettine only grinned and said, "Dammit, but you're right. I think we'll get along."
"I told you, I'm not leaving. I love the farm and my family, especially my brother Will, and the nice view from up here. The apple trees are so late this year they're still blooming and it looks pretty ..."
Bettine sighed. "Nice. Pretty. Child, I've read the things you've had to write for school. You have no poetical imagination, but-I suppose with effort-you can write with a fair amount of clarity and organization. Perhaps you will be able to be a remarkable teacher, or administrator, wasted in Powetville."
"No," said Cass, looking down at the small farm below and the village of Powetville to the left. Across the valley and to the right were ridges of red rock and dark green trees, blocking the view of the nearest town, Darley. Beyond Darley, and also invisible, was Galesburg, a city big enough to have a college and medical school.
"I like the view better in the fall," Cass said, "because the trees are all sorts of colors." Instantly, she was ashamed at not managing any purple prose.
"I remember," said Bettine. "The enclosing hills. Trapping me here." It was as if she were talking to herself, but suddenly Cass saw the valley through her eyes, and felt trapped too. Cass had never left the valley except to shop in Darley.
"You have excellent grades, Casselda. I have connections. You will live with me in New York and go to Barnard College in the fall."
"I can't! You don't understand! I was always unpopular in school because I got good grades and my hair frizzed and the boys said I was plain. My brother Will always stuck by me. We were like twins. He's my best friend and I want him to have the life he wants."
"And your life, Casselda?"
"It does to me. You are my only niece. I see that I must help Will so that you don't have to." She leaned against the fence as if she were tired. "I understand the desperation of young men and the girls who love them. I will send my younger nephew to college and medical school if you come with me to New York, today."
Never to have to marry Bart Smith. Never to have to worry about Will because he'd have enough money.
"New York City is not that far on the train, Casselda. You will be able to visit your family whenever you want."
"I've never even seen a big city ..."
"New York is composed of small neighborhoods, each of them with grocer and delicatessan."
"What is a delicatessan?"
Bettine produced a low, rippling laugh like the deep chuckle of a brook in spring. "Oh, my dear child, wait til you taste the many kinds of food, from the many kinds of people in the city. You will never want to live in Powetville again."
Dan was easy to convince. After extracting all sorts of reassurances from his sister-in-law, he hugged Cass and said, "Good luck, Cassie. You'll do well, I'm sure."
Will thanked Bettine and said, "But I won't be a big expense, Aunt. I'm still going to work part-time. You can spend most of the money on Cass."
Hetty said nothing, and cried, but only a little. When Cass went upstairs to pack, she distinctly heard Hetty wail, "but Tina, why now?"
Chapter TwoCass had never been on a train before. Bettine closed the window next to them, but a little engine smoke still came in occasionally through windows that were open. Cass didn't mind, in spite of the flecks of soot that settled on face and clothes, for she was too busy watching the landscape go by so quickly. She didn't have to make conversation, for Bettine was writing an article.
New York City! Cass tried to imagine what it would be like to go to a theater, to hear great music, see great dancing. To be seen doing those things.
Suddenly she was terrified. This was a terrible mistake. She felt she belonged on the dairy farm, or in a country schoolhouse.
Soon-sooner than she expected-they arrived inside the noisy bustle of New York City, which smelled worse than the dairy farm, and took a carriage to Gramercy Park, which Bettine called a small green oasis. It was green all right, and surrounded by a locked fence.
"As a resident of the hotel, you will be permitted to have a key to the park," Bettine said.
In the comfortingly solid hotel, their luggage carried by uniformed young men, Bettine and Cass ascended from the lobby in a golden cage.
Excerpted from The House Where Isadora Danced by J. O. Jeppson Copyright © 2009 by J. O. Jeppson. Excerpted by permission.
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