There is a story about a girl who took the wrong path, and rues it all her life. She is too trusting. She is too passionate. The result: an error than can't be corrected, a stain that can't be washed out. Back on the old homestead where she grew up no one is permitted to speak her name, and her picture is turned to the wall.
Gentlemen love this story, so when any girl in a house of mine lacked some version of it I would help her to make one up. I'd take her to a good restaurant at a quiet time of day, order something very expensive and tell her, "You were an Ohio farm girl, and to help your folks out with the bank loan you went to work in a mill. The mill agent's son noticed you. He was very handsome. That was your downfall."
Or I'd begin, "You're from a fine old Baltimore family. Your father was a good man, except, he was a bit reckless: he gambled; he was killed in a duel."
And so on. There was a time when I had three girls declaring in the face of overwhelming contrary evidence that they were the daughters of clergymen.
Why it was useful to say these things, I can only guess. God knows it wasn't to evoke pity. We weren't beggars, and the customers weren't softhearted. The important thing was that it worked. We knew from experience that these men paid more for the attention of a girl wrapped in the fiction that she had not chosen this lifeshe was unlucky, meant for something better, but here to enjoy thanks to her misfortune.
Sometimes we lied even though the truth was perfect. The pretty creature would run a fingertip along the rim of her glass and tell me, "I was a farm girl, but in Indiana" or "There was a boss's son, and a child, it did die, I did try to kill myself." I'd inquire, "Do you ever tell them that?" She'd answer, "No." I'd say, "Of course not: it's too personal. But since it resembles what they want to hear, tell them something else on those lines. That way everyone's happy."
The truth was withheld only because so much else had to be forfeited. My case was like that. I was the country girl. And before that, I was the rich girl.
To begin with the first story, I was born in 1828, into a family of pious Yankee merchants. My grandfather, a silk importer, had come to New York from Massachusetts fifteen years earlier and had prospered. He owned what was for several years the tallest building in New York City. My father was his chief clerk. My mother was an invalid, and we prayed every day that she would live and knew that she would die.
Our home was in Bowling Green, a fashionable New York City neighborhood a little past its prime. Its fine three-story buildings, with their pitched roofs and neat rows of dormer windows and wrought-iron fences, were being refashioned to live second lives as boarding houses, or being torn down entirely and replaced with hotels. I think it is because I was born there that the world has always felt old to me. The United States was young. Newspapers constantly reminded us of that. But in Bowling Green things showed signs of long use. I remember when a flood on the second floor of our house damaged a wall of the sitting room on the floor below, revealing many old layers of wallpaper, in quaint patterns, and my father told me that they had been pasted to the walls by the people who had been here before us, and deeper layers had been put there by the people who were here still earlier. How remarkable: there had been other families, surrounded by fleur de lis on yellow, before that by pussy willow twigs on green, and so on, layer on layer, back and back. Digging in the courtyard I would find children's lost whip tops and penny dolls. Who were these children? Where were they now?
Excerpted from Belle Cora by Phillip Margulies. Copyright © 2014 by Phillip Margulies. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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