One of Marder’s business associates was named Atwood. Atwood was in railroads. Marder had asked me to pay special attention to Atwood.
On the fourth night, Atwood began to cry after participating in an act most men his age might have congratulated themselves for as it required youthful stamina.
Atwood didn’t want a cigar. Atwood didn’t want a shot of Canadian Club.
So I took him by the elbow, and I led him out onto one of the white house’s many wrought iron balustrades. He perked up when he saw the stars. Stars in the sky made Atwood happy.
“Look over here,” he said. “Look! Cassiopeia! And see over there? That’s the Big Dipper. The Indians called it the Great Plow.”
Stars in the sky didn’t make me happy, but for some reason, they reminded me of Henry Miller. And that made me happy.
Meanwhile, Atwood had taken a liking to me.
“What is your name, dear?”
“Marguerite,” I said.
“Marguerite, you don’t belong here,” Atwood said. “I knew that the moment I laid eyes on you. You’re something rare. You move like a princess. Swanlike. You glide.”
I lowered my eyes modestly. “I’m here to settle a debt.”
“Not my debt. My father’s debt. He made some business investments. Unwise business investments he wouldn’t normally have made, but Mama—she’s so ill, and Papa thought this was a sure way to make the money she’d need for treatment except it didn’t work out.” I swallowed loudly. “He borrowed the money from Mr. Marder, and then when he couldn’t pay him back, Mr. Marder said he needn’t pay it back if he… If I…” I blinked several times rapidly. “Do you have a cigarette?”
Atwood had his gold cigarette case out in a jiffy. His gold lighter too, encrusted with stones that glittered more like rubies than like garnets, though one never knows without a loupe.
“But that’s an outrage!” he declared.
I shrugged weakly. “I love my father, Mr. Atwood.”
“If I had a daughter, I wish she could be as good and brave as you! Here – “ He reached into his pocket, stuffed a note into my hand. What denomination? It wouldn’t do to look. “It’s not much—“
“It’s too much—“
“I’m going to have a word with that Marder—“
“No, no! Please. He’ll take it out in horrible ways if he knows I’ve told anyone—“
I let Atwood soothe my tears. He had stubby fingers, and his breath was very sour when he kissed me on the cheek.
“You’re a good man! I could tell that the instant I laid eyes on you!” I murmured over and over again.
“You stay here!” I said when his breathing finally turned hard and rhythmical. “I want to remember you looking at the stars! The stars you love! Promise me you’ll stay right here. Looking at the stars!”
Atwood’s bedroom was on the second floor. Small chamber paneled in wood. Brushes aligned on a mirrored mahogany chiffonier. Lithograph of the HMS Victory hanging on the wall.
I had perhaps five minutes, I calculated, before Atwood returned to the bedroom.
The rules of the game said I could take one thing but that I had to leave one thing behind.
Next to the brushes stood a small oval box. Looked to be made of sterling silver. I picked up the box, fingered it expertly, searching for the hidden latch. It was a matchstick holder! I wanted to laugh. A fifty-dollar reliquary for a one-cent trifle!
He could have lost it in oh so many places throughout the evening, shuffling between the table, and the smoking parlor, and the boudoir where Marder’s female guests waited to perform their tricks. He could even have lost it on the balustrade where he showed me the stars that made him so happy.
I left a piece of black velvet ribbon. Its nap was almost worn off; I’d been using it to tie a broken stay on my corset. If Atwood discovered the ribbon, he’d imagine it fallen from the uniform of one of the maids. No doubt he’d complain, and the maid would get a bad reference.
I hurried away from Atwood’s room.
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