A dynastic tale of two families—the Gerrards and Leiders—as seen through the eyes of four women whose lives are bound by blood and friendship, and interwoven with the destiny of Houston, Texas, for over 70 years.
|Publisher:||Open Road Integrated Media LLC|
|Product dimensions:||6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 1.50(d)|
About the Author
Suzanne Morris is a native of Houston. She lives with her family in Baytown, Texas. Her published novels include Galveston , Keeping Secrets , Skychild , and Wives and Mistresses. Her current work in progress is a two-volume novel set in England and the United States. She is also writing a film adaptation of this work.
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Wives and Mistresses
By Suzanne Morris
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2000 Suzanne Morris
All rights reserved.
It will soon be daylight, and this night of silent vigil in the house my father built will be over at last. Yet, will I go away from here any less his prisoner than before? Can any of us whose lives he touched really escape his evil?
Now and then I close my eyes and imagine that the child lying close to me rises from her bed, pulls back the veil of mosquito netting which encloses her, and, smiling at me with a toss of her curls, dances around my chair. When I open my eyes the stark truth mocks me. The doctor was here until shortly after midnight and said that Elzyna might never walk again. I watched from an upstairs window as the lights on his buggy moved like a pair of fireflies down the narrow path, then disappeared into the thick shroud of trees that surround this place in the wilderness. And I stood at that window for a long time, thinking of the insidious web of circumstances that began before I knew anything about the house or the life my father structured for himself, and inevitably brought disaster not only to Elzyna but to all of us.
It was in a little town not so far from here that I grew up. Harrisburg, Texas, was then — as it is now — an ugly collection of streets and buildings, bereft of design or style. The grass grew tall over many of the city blocks, and the streets were unpaved and dusty. Two bayous — the Brays and the Buffalo — intersected near the middle of town. Down the center ran the main thoroughfare of Broadway, and in the southeast corner was the Glendale Cemetery, where heroes of the Texas Revolution were buried alongside less distinguished people.
There were a few saloons, a couple of grocers, a post office, a school for all grades, and a blacksmith. There were several boardinghouses, and a few grand homes such as the one where the Charles Milby family lived and the one at the corner of Broadway and Sycamore where I lived with my father and sister. Papa built the house shortly before the Civil War, and it might have been a happy place for a while. From the time I could remember, it was not. It was a two-story house with a third-floor attic, which later became my father's quarters, and where, from a small oval window, he could look down upon the yard. It had deep windows with art glass in the second story, a vine-covered gallery on the ground floor that wound around the side of the house, a pitched roof with ridge cresting and one tall central brick chimney. The yard was shaded with old magnolias and surrounded by an iron fence.
Inside the house was well furnished, as might be expected of the home of a prosperous family. Fine clothing filled the wardrobes and dressers; the larder was well stocked with food. Yet I spent many a late afternoon out on the front gallery looking across the street at the one-story cottage of a railroad family and wishing I lived there. The children wore hand-me-downs and ran around dirty most of the time. But there was laughter there, and when the father came home in the evening after working in the shops, he gathered the children in his arms and rode the youngest piggyback all the way up the walk and into the house. I wished I could follow them inside and eat leftover stew around their table.
I will never forget January 5, 1887, two days after my seventeenth birthday. Surely there was never a day less fit for walking home from school; yet of necessity I was doing just that. My arms were loaded with school books. My hands were cold and wet in spite of a pair of gloves. The chilly wind penetrated my woolen coat and the wet mush underfoot soaked through my boots. The ice hung on shrubs and fences, and slickened the dead yellow grass that surrounded the houses. The trees — the only features of natural beauty in the town — were black and barren skeletons which reminded me of how much I disliked this time of year. The fact that I had not been picked up from school, two blocks down and one block over, indicated that Papa was gone from town. Of this I was thankful, for at least the house would be peaceful once I arrived.
Nearly home, I passed by the Leider house and glanced up at the porch. Until several years ago, the Leiders lived in a large home with lawns that swept down to the edge of Buffalo Bayou. Then, Mr. Leider was discovered to have a mistress. My father led the church committee that exposed them.
After that Mr. Leider and the woman disappeared. There was a tale circulated that was never proved, but was never doubted either, that they ran away together. Mrs. Leider soon moved her family to a lesser house — the one that I was passing now — and took in boarders. David no longer lived at home. But he was there today, on the front porch, talking to a tall, distinguished-looking man about to depart. I thought the man might be a prospective boarder.
I did not want David to see me looking. I faced ahead as soon as I realized they had both noticed me. I failed to see a dip in the muddy street and, missing my step, fell forward, my books sailing from my hands. I do not believe I have ever been so painfully embarrassed. The guest had come down off the Leider porch and was now lifting me to my feet. Our eyes met. Then we were both speaking at once: he to inquire as to my well-being; me, to apologize for my clumsiness and offer thanks. The jumble of words this produced caused him to stop and smile. "I'm afraid you've spoiled your coat," he said.
"It doesn't matter," I stammered.
He told me his name was Neal Gerrard, then said, "Let me see you home."
"No, thank you. I live just there." I pointed toward our house up the street, noticing that my half-sister Olivia had stationed herself at her upstairs window and now peered down at us. Olivia was Papa's daughter by his first wife. At thirty-seven her youthfulness was gone. Her wide brown eyes were lackluster. She wore her hair pinned up in back, and the unruly strands of gray that now invaded it made a frizzy patch of the bangs she wore above her forehead. Her shoulders were round and fleshy; her breasts were a wide and fulsome plain that rose and fell with her breathing. She was old enough to be my mother, and most of the time she treated me accordingly.
Neal must have seen her too, for he paused a moment, then looked at me. "Well, then, here are your books ... unless you would let me carry them for you."
"Oh no, good day," I said, already hurrying away.
"But what's your name?"
"Alvareda. Alvareda Cane."
He tipped his hat. Once I looked back, and he was still standing there, his long hands driven deep down into his overcoat pockets. He did not look like a prospective boarder. He was too smartly dressed, like a businessman from Houston, or Galveston perhaps.
Once inside the house, I rushed to a front parlor window, rubbed a clear place in the mist, and looked out. I could still see his tall figure, doubling back toward the Leider home.
Olivia was soon beside me. "Who was that?"
"Just a nice fellow," I told her, still looking out the window. "Isn't he handsome?"
She considered. "Not as handsome as David. He's a little on the thin side, don't you think?"
I had been thinking of the kind hazel eyes and the high cheeks, reddened by the cold wind, and the lock of brown hair that tumbled down his forehead as he straightened me up. I could close my eyes and feel the warmth of his arms — "No — that is, well, there was something about him."
"Come along. Let's get you some dry clothes and hot tea."
Olivia's rooms were not only the warmest, but also the prettiest in the house. They were decorated in the cheerful colors of mauve and turquoise, with sheer panels over the windows and light-colored wallpaper and carpets, white woodwork, and a beautiful gas fixture fashioned into a bouquet of glass tulips from which the gaslights shone hazily. Potted palms took to the effusive light in these rooms, and there were at least a half dozen stationed around the floor. Everywhere — on benches and chairs, and stacked on windowsills — were taffeta pillows with deep flounces, and a velvet drapery with gold tassels separated the sitting room from the bedroom. Near the windows on the east side, there stood an easel with a portrait of my father and her mother on their wedding day.
We sat on peacock chairs with a tea table between us. Olivia's Haviland tea service was her pride and joy. This and her other "pretty things," as I called them, were the only source of glamour left in her life. Not until I was thirteen did she allow me to enter her room at will. Her white Persian cat — appropriately named Fluff — now hopped upon her knees and stretched, settling down in the hearth-warmed lap of her mistress. Olivia stroked her, and she purred and curled up her tail. Outside it was sleeting again, and the window near us was open slightly at the bottom, producing a pleasant waft of cold air to temper the heat of the fire. Glad to be in out of the weather, I looked lazily out the window and relived the few short moments with the kind stranger all over again.
"What are you thinking of?"
"Oh, just that man I met today. He told me his name, Neal Gerrard," I said, enjoying the sound of it as it rolled off my tongue.
"It was kind of him to come to your aid. I suspect he is a good deal older than you are, though."
I glanced at her. "Why were you spying on us?"
"I wasn't spying. I was worried about you. I must have looked out a dozen times, wondering what kept you. I was about to hitch up Papa's bays and come after you, regardless of how he feels —"
"I wonder if Mr. Gerrard will come back again."
"Probably not," she said quickly. "I mean, there is little to bring people to Harrisburg these days, and now with even the railroad shops moving, Papa says —"
"I know, sister. He's talked of nothing else for weeks."
Papa resented Houston's growth. He was born in upstate New York and as a young man was lured to Texas by newspaper ads that promised holders of script in land companies some acreage upon arrival here. Papa bought some and, in 1834, traveled down to clear and farm his land. But he found the script did nothing except allow a man the privilege of looking for a piece of land to buy. He made his way to Harrisburg and decided the ten-year-old city, with its navigable stream and sawmills, would prosper. He became a land agent, traveling all over the territory to find suitable tracts for those who, unlike him, could afford to buy.
He was here two years later when the battle for Texas independence was waged, and now, more than fifty years later, he still had his soldier's uniform. Many times I had heard the story of his heroic deeds because when he was drinking heavily he forced us to sit at the dining room table and listen to him for hours.
Harrisburg was razed by Mexican troops during the revolution, but Papa, like some others, returned to rebuild what he had lost. Eventually two brothers, John K. and Augustus C. Allen, came from New York to Texas to build a city, and they tried to purchase land in Harrisburg through Papa, by then a well-established agent. However, Harrisburg land was tied up in litigation since its founder's death and wasn't to be sold to the Allen brothers or anyone else. The Allens went five miles upstream and staked out a town on the swampy banks of Buffalo Bayou. They named it Houston, in honor of the hero of the Revolution. Almost at once, Harrisburg began the long and painful process of withering. The recent removal of the railroad shops to their new location in the Fifth Ward of Houston was the deathblow. I did not want to talk of Papa's most recent sore subject now.
"Well, you never know. Maybe he travels around, like David," I said of Neal.
Olivia replaced her china cup in its saucer and wiped the biscuit crumbs from the corners of her mouth. She put down her napkin lingeringly, then looked across at me. "Don't start thinking of boys again, Alvareda. You know how Papa feels."
"But I'm seventeen now. It isn't the same as two years ago, when David —"
"I understand. But as long as you live in Papa's house, you must abide by his rules. Be thankful you have a beautiful home and nice clothes to wear."
"Yes, sister. But surely Papa doesn't expect me always to stay here."
"Sh. Have some more tea now, before it gets cold."
I shrugged in defeat and looked out the window again. It would have been nice if Olivia could have treated me more as a sister. She had once been courted by young men, so surely she sensed how I was feeling right now. Yet I suppose her attitude was understandable. She had been forced to assume matronly duties at such an early age. Her own mother died of yellow fever during the Civil War, and for several years there was no one except Olivia and Papa in the house. Then in 1869 Papa married my mother, and in late 1876 came the tragedy which took my mother's life. Olivia was then twenty-six years old. She was once and for all established in her role as my substitute mother and Papa's companion and confidante, for he never married again. Now that I was nearly grown, she was often caught between her wish to see me happy and her fierce loyalty to him, because in our household the two could not be mixed.
Papa returned home in one of his bitter moods that evening. His work took him to all parts of the state, and he often traveled to places accessible only on horseback. Today he had ridden through icy rain. He was both exhausted and wet when he came through the door. Olivia and I stood by nervously as he shed his outer garments and rolled up his sleeves. I do not believe I have ever seen a man who so completely crowded a room. He had a strapping body that showed little wear from age. He had very little gray in his auburn hair and a pair of unruly eyebrows above dark, suspicious eyes. At best, he was coldly cordial toward me; at worst, he was downright brutal.
He ordered a glass of whiskey now. Olivia was busy disposing of his wet garments, and signaled me to fix his drink. I walked into the dining room and nervously took the top off the decanter on the sideboard. Reaching for a glass, I upset the decanter top and sent it crashing to the floor. Seized with terror, I put my hands behind me and turned to the door. Papa had heard the noise and stormed in. "What have you done now, daughter? Broke my best decanter?"
"I'm sorry, Papa, I —" I stammered breathlessly.
"Get out of here, you clumsy —"
My whole body was suspended, numb. My limbs were icy. I could not have moved, even in obedience to his bitter direction. Olivia drew up behind and interrupted him. Softly she said, "Papa, Alvareda took a fall today. I'm sure it has upset her."
He did not stop to inquire of my well-being. He simply sent me a look of contempt. He ordered Olivia to pour the drink and remember to have the broken article repaired. At Olivia's nod, I fled from the room and up the stairs, my heartbeat a frenzied whacking in my breast.
I shut the door to my room and stood for a while with my hand still on the knob, trying to collect myself. At last I fell on the bed and lay there motionless. How could Papa hate me so? I lamented, even while I felt sure I knew the answer. Sometimes I thought he would like to kill me.
Finally I turned over and opened my English literature book. I was staring blindly at the page in front of me when I heard Olivia and Papa approach the landing on the second floor, where the stairway makes a sharp right turn, then listened to their footfalls up the next flight. They were going up to Papa's quarters, at the top of the stairwell, directly above my room. Often they passed the long evenings up there, and if I stayed awake long enough, I would sometimes catch a note of laughter, though I could never make out what they said to each other.
I lay there for a long time before finally I began to concentrate on the book in front of me. Why was that area kept so secret, I wondered? I would not have expected to be welcome during their conversations, but the fact that the door was always locked, Papa keeping one key and Olivia keeping the other, seemed unnecessary unless there was something in the room Papa did not want me to see. Not for the first time, when left to my own thoughts, my fear of Papa, my rationalizing of his motives toward me, gave over to resentment at being denied entry into his life. I was like an outsider. I did not belong. I might have been a boarder taken in by a family who had suffered a financial setback and regarded with condescension as a paying guest. For as long as I could remember I had felt this way. Yet I could remember nothing before my mother's death when I was not quite seven, and had only sketchy recollections of things outside of that up to the age of ten or eleven. Olivia had often said that Papa used to be different, happy. When she was a child he bought her a pony and taught her to ride. He took her on trips with him as well. She still had geegaws and trinkets picked up in exotic places like New York City and Philadelphia. He had never taken me anywhere. When did he change? The probable answer, though Olivia had never admitted as much, was with the death of my mother. And my mother and I resembled one another so strongly that I was a constant reminder in more than one way that his second wife, as well as his first, had been taken from him.
Before putting out the light, I read ten pages in the section on English poets, gaining nothing from them because my mind kept returning to the difference between me and Olivia. Surely her situation was better than mine, yet, was she any happier? Earlier today, with her plump shoulders and head silhouetted against the burning log fire, her cheeks especially rosy from the heat, she reminded me of herself as a young woman. When I was not yet tall enough to reach to the top of the wheels on Papa's buggy, Olivia was one of the belles of Harrisburg. She had been courted by a young law student — though he was by no means her only beau — and, just before my mother's death she had become engaged to him. On the afternoons when he would call, I could still remember her standing in the parlor, with her music propped upon the stand, practicing the violin, tapping her foot to keep time. She wore little spectacles with black wire rims when practicing because she was terribly nearsighted. I believe the regimen helped to pass the time and therefore settle her nerves, for she would station me near the window to watch for Mr. Nelson, as she referred to him. Now and then she would stop suddenly and ask, "Is he coming yet?" Then, when I assured her there was no sign of him, she would straighten the eyeglasses and remind me to be sure she had time to remove them before he approached the door, for she was mortified at the thought that she might be seen in them. Then she would resume her playing.
Excerpted from Wives and Mistresses by Suzanne Morris. Copyright © 2000 Suzanne Morris. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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