Set in 1908, Indigo Lace tells the story of twenty-four-year-old Eleanor Worthington, who has grown up as the beloved and sheltered daughter of a wealthy Philadelphia merchant. When her father’s death leaves her emotionally and financially fragile for the first time in her life, she embarks on a journey of independence that will take her from Philadelphia to Boston, New York to Newport, as she uncovers a potentially devastating secret about the past and looks toward a future she never imagined.
The rest of March was not kind. The wind screamed off the harbor and whipped Nell’s hair from under its pinned hat as she walked to work each day. It seemed an endless series of gray days. She wrote to Mrs. Reilly, but with each day that passed without a reply, her hopes of a response grew dimmer. Mr. Miller was kind, glad that she had returned, and did not ask too many questions. Nell knew she would have to look for another living situation, one that was more affordable and perhaps nearer work, but the cold seemed to suck the life from her bones, and when she got home at the end of the day, she had not the energy to so much as open a newspaper.
The anniversary of her father’s death came and went. She’d been dreading it; yet through some act of divine order, the store had been so overwhelmed with customers that Nell was kept hopping from morning until evening, and it was not until she got home that she remembered. When she realized what day it was, she cried, both with sadness and shame that she’d almost forgotten. What would he say to her now if he could? Nell hadn’t cried in front of him since she was a child; during those long, brief weeks of his illness, she’d gone out of the room if she’d felt herself suddenly overcome with emotion. She had liked to sit by his bedside, reading to him, even though she knew he was only half listening, and she might be reading as steadily and calmly aloud as she did to herself when suddenly a word or phrase, a particular description, so lovely in its web, would catch her up, and she’d toss down the book and run from the room. Once when she’d done that, she’d startled him into awareness, and when she came back, eyes dry but red, having been rubbed out of tears, he’d looked at her with a half-smile, moved his hand on the bed for her to take it, and Nell thought that if that’s what it took to bring him back, if only for an instant, she would gladly read until her voice grew hoarse, until she choked on the beautiful words of Whitman, but each time she found herself on the precipice of grief in his presence she had not the courage to jump.
It was like that too with Mr. Bettencourt. Alone in her room, she replayed their moments, their conversations in her head, could see and hear him before her as clearly as if he were standing in the room. She wished she weren’t alone, but if he really were here, or if she could go to him, would she be as honest in his presence as she was out of it? For there were moments during their trip – little lighthearted moments – when suddenly a strange feeling would overtake her, akin to grief but not quite, both a celebration of and mourning for the passing beauty of the moment, a brief recognition that this was the stuff that mattered, these were the moments that created Life in all its beauty and power, fleeting impermanent words, gestures, glances that got to the heart of the matter, the way typescript on a page might suddenly illuminate a truth one has always sensed but could not articulate, or else thought that no one else but they recognized.
She unpacked her beloved book, the one with the familiar, comforting handwriting and placed it next to her bed. Then she unpacked the book Mr. Bettencourt had given her. She was almost finished reading it, and she flipped now to the inside back cover. It was blank. As she closed the volume and placed it on top of the other, it occurred to her in a sense that she had two former lives: before her father died and before she met Mr. Bettencourt. And now she was living life without either of them.
March rolled into April, and Nell wondered if Mr. Bettencourt were back. The way he’d said it, You still owe me money, had promised this was not goodbye, not in the way she had feared that night. But she received no bill, no word from him. She moved out of the hotel and into a small boardinghouse nearer Miller’s. “Boardinghouse” was putting it generously. She took a room from an elderly lady, to whom in exchange for room and board she acted in her off-hours as a sort of nurse-companion, seeing to it that the old lady took her medicine regularly and performing small household duties and errands. Nell had never learned to properly cook and now she helped prepare dinner, simple though it was, each evening. Mrs. Cortini hovered by her side in the small kitchen, pointing at various ingredients, and when Nell held a bowl or knife awkwardly – which happened often – she just shook her snow-colored head and nudged the girl aside to demonstrate. Nell didn’t particularly mind the extra work; it served to keep her hands busy if nothing else, for Mrs. Cortini, in addition to being hard of hearing, spoke only broken English so any conversation was difficult, halting, and short-lived.
Nell was grateful to Mr. Miller for arranging this situation, for it enabled her to save money. But again, it was temporary. How long could she go from place to place, situation to situation, with only her two carpetbags of belongings? Every night when she retired to her room, the question rose in the dark until one morning, having slept fitfully and woken early, the answer became plain, as plain as the sunshine that gradually shook off the night’s curtains. She would stay until she could afford to go home to Philadelphia, until the checks from the business would be enough to live on, to buy a small apartment near the store, where she might pop in whenever she wanted and not feel so alone. She didn’t care who might know what she had done the previous June or what the talk would be. She even felt confident that Edgar would not object to her being involved, although his father might prove difficult. But that was no matter; Nell had had her share of dealing with difficult parents, and she was an equal partner. She would not allow herself to be railroaded. She would clear the rest of her books, clothing, and other personal items out of her mother’s house, assuming they were still there, and then she need never move them again. Perhaps it would take her another year if things went well, two at the outside.
She wanted to give Mr. Lombardi a little money now that she was feeling a bit more secure. It still bothered her that she had not paid the doctor when he’d been injured at her expense. So she wrote to him and arranged to meet in the Common on her first free Saturday in April, for she wished to put the funds into his hands. They did not speak of what had happened except for Nell explaining that she felt badly she’d not been able to help before. It went against her nature and all that her father had taught her, and when he finally relented in accepting her offering, she walked away thinking that was the real power of money: it enabled people to be their true selves.
She felt rather pleased with herself at the way she’d been able to arrange and carry out her aim with Mr. Lombardi, and it gave her the impetus to write to Mr. Bettencourt herself. She felt the need to tell him her idea about moving back to Philadelphia, as if that would make it more real. Would he approve of it? And she wished to tell him of her escapades in the kitchen. No doubt he would find them amusing, but she had also the vague notion of his being impressed, for although she was no chef, she felt certain it would surprise him. And though she didn’t know how much the final sum would be, she wanted to begin to pay what she owed him. If she waited until she received a bill, she might be waiting several months, and though she knew it made no difference to him whether she paid a little now or a larger amount later, she would feel better if she began.
So, the third Sunday in April she took a note, with some funds enclosed, and walked round to his residence, intending to drop it in the mail slot. But when she flipped open the cast-iron lip and bent down, she was surprised to see the inner door standing ajar. She straightened and let the flap swing back shut with a loud clatter. In a moment she heard footsteps. He looked surprised, though pleasantly so, to see her.
“When did you get back?” Nell asked when she’d stepped inside.
“Friday late,” Bettencourt answered, taking her coat and hanging it up in the hall cupboard, for she’d grown warm on her walk over and was carrying it before her, folded so that her gloveless hands were hidden. A tea kettle whistled.
“I thought you drank coffee.”
“I caught a cold while I was away.”
“In that case, I had better go,” Nell said, taking a step backwards.
“I’m at the end of it now,” he said, heading back into the kitchen and gesturing for her to follow him. He bid her sit down at the small table as he opened all manner of cupboards, looking for the tea tin and muttering to himself as he did so. The kettle went on howling, a high-pitched sound like an angry cat. He rushed over to it, yanked his hand back when it encountered steam, and glanced around for a dishrag, which he found hanging over his shoulder.
Nell watched, amused. He was even more inept in the kitchen than she was.
“This just shows you how little I’m here. I buy things, and then I cannot remember where I put them. Ah!” he said, finally coming up with the tin.
She let him wait on her, and though she was unused to having a male, and someone who was not a servant or waiter, do so, she felt oddly calm as he scurried around, though she knew she’d be doing the same thing if the situation were reversed.
The tea prepared, he seated himself, and they were silent a moment as they waited for their drinks to cool. Nell waved a hand over hers.
“Your lip is looking much better,” he remarked, bringing his cup to his mouth.
“Is it?” Nell ran a finger over the tiny scab. “I feel like there’s a scar.”
“One can’t tell.”
“It’s shaped like a comma.”
Bettencourt leaned forward a hair’s breadth. “You’re crazy,” he said.
Nell smiled; she knew she wasn’t. She took a drink of her tea and slid her letter across the table.
“I came to deliver this. You can read it after I leave, though I’m afraid there will be nothing new in it by that point.”
“Then we must talk of other things so I can have something for later,” he said, taking another sip. “Have you heard from Mrs. Reilly? Or is that a topic for the letter?”
Nell shook her head. “It’s been…well, I suppose it hasn’t really been all that long, although it seems long.” She paused. “Do you ever feel, I don’t know, let down somehow when you come home?” she asked. “Or are you home so little that coming back is something new and exciting?”
She’d struggled to put her feeling into words, so she thought Mr. Bettencourt might need time to consider, but he answered right away.
“I long for that initial lying down in my own bed, and I may linger all the next morning, but before long, I am restless again. I suppose that’s why I chose this profession. Or rather it chose me. Why, do you feel that way?”
“Ever since we got back, I’ve felt…unmoored in a way. And now that I am moored – temporarily anyway – I feel suffocated. Or stranded. And I don’t know if it’s because of my situation or what. Because it’s a relief, it really is, to have a plan, and one that I feel is right, but…it doesn’t help me now, in this moment.”
Bettencourt looked at her, about to reply, when there was a knock at the door. He got up to answer it, a slight scowl passing over his face. From her spot in the kitchen, if she leaned a little to the left in her chair, she could just see him talking to someone in the vestibule. She couldn’t see who it was; his frame was blocking her view. She heard low murmurings, then he opened the inner door to let the visitor inside. Nell stood up and peeked around the doorframe into the hall. A small, raven-haired woman, younger than she might have expected, was looking up at him with imploring blue eyes, hand on his forearm. He was trying to direct her into his office but having no luck. He spoke in low tones, and Nell tried not to focus on what he was saying, though she couldn’t tear her eyes from the scene. The woman let out a strangled sound – halfway between a cry and a gasp – and fell against him. To Nell’s surprise, he put his arms around her, held them there for a minute, then directed her, half slumped against him, into his office, with a glance over his shoulder at Nell and a look that said he’d just be a minute.
Nell used the time to survey the kitchen. There was nothing much to see in it, a stove, cupboards, a small lean-to with a larder. She ran one hand along the sand-colored wood of the table, wondering if he was accustomed to sitting at it, or if he usually ate over his desk as she had seen him that one time. She went to the stove and peered down at it. It was neither dirty nor spotless, with just enough residue to suggest that some cooking went on, though Nell couldn’t tell how elaborately or frequently.
She wondered if the woman in his office was a common occurrence with his profession. She had pictured all his clients as middle-aged, but this woman looked only a few years older than herself. How sad to be so young, with still so many years of married life before you, and have this happen. Would the woman actually leave her husband? She looked so weak, so vulnerable, so devastated. And if she didn’t leave him, what was the point of finding out about the betrayal? Bettencourt, with his usual shrewdness, would say it was so she could lord it over the man, but Nell thought it a pyrrhic victory, and she suddenly understood his need for his clients to be certain before they began. She wondered if he was ever tempted to say, I told you so.
He told her once when they had been in New York that he could tell right away when clients sat down if they would ultimately leave their spouse. Most of the women would not, which was no surprise to Nell, but she was startled that not all the men would. Bettencourt said that he’d been surprised, too, the first time a man had taken in the evidence, grown red-faced, and then after a few minutes had passed, said, “It changes nothing, of course.” Of course? Of course it does, it changes everything, Bettencourt had wanted to say, he told her, but it wasn’t his place. His clients paid him for his time and abilities, not his opinions, and after a while, he ceased to be affected by any of their reactions or what they chose to do. He often wondered if it was the man’s pride that had been wounded more than anything else, he said, or if the news even came as a kind of relief because it gave him the license to take a mistress.
“Such marriages are foreign to me. But then, I am a foreigner.”
“You are?” Nell had turned to him in surprise. “You don’t have an accent,” she observed.
“I was seven.”
Nell took in this new information. She never would have known it; yet now for some reason, it made sense that he should be. It didn’t alter anything about him – he’d always been what he was – but it changed her understanding of him. Suddenly his childhood, which must always have been different from hers, became dissimilar in a way she could never know. She thought of her father’s globes, what Bettencourt had said about the sea. His surname. She hadn’t considered it before beyond thinking that she liked it, but now it called up a familiarity from the recesses of her mind. Her father had once talked about going to the Hawaiian Islands, and the summer it seemed likely, Nell had pored over books in preparation. She’d seen that name before. Perhaps she hadn’t wanted to recognize it until now, for it was another reminder of a trip she and her father would never take.
She took a stab. “Portugal?”
He’d looked surprised. “The Azorean islands, if we’re being specific. But yes,” and Nell had filed the information away in the short but growing list of things she knew about him. It was interesting, uncommon; it was like him.
Nell now resumed her seat at the kitchen table, hugging her teacup as she waited for him to finish dealing with his client. As the minutes passed, the tea grew cold. She was deliberating if she should not perhaps leave – it would be the polite thing to do – when she heard the office door open and Mr. Bettencourt’s voice in the hall. He escorted the woman out, then came back into the kitchen.
“Sorry about that,” he said, taking a sip of tea. He shook his head and went to refill the kettle.
“I expect you get that sort of thing a lot,” Nell said, in a tone which was a cross between a declaration and a question.
“This was the client I had just traveled for. I wired her Friday to come Monday, but she couldn’t wait.”
Nell stared into her murky teacup, remembering her own anxiousness when she’d received his telegram about Jane.
“Not good news, I take it?” she asked.
He shook his head. “What makes it worse is she’s pregnant.”
“Oh,” Nell said, taking a sip of the cold liquid and feeling her cheeks turn pink. “How terrible. I mean, that must be very hard for her. I can’t imagine.”
He set the kettle to boil again, took their cups and dumped out the cold tea. She felt suddenly awkward and tried to recapture the ease of their previous conversation.
“You must get a lot of crying women on your shoulder. You seem quite practiced at what to do.” She had meant it as a jest, a compliment even, but there was a tinge in her voice she hadn’t intended. He glanced at her from the stove.
“A certain amount comes with the territory,” he said, his voice even.
She exhaled; he might just as easily have registered her tone as not. Oh, who was she kidding; she knew he rarely missed anything, but at least he had the tact not to comment on it. And yet, in a way it felt like he had commented on it. Sometimes – like now – she felt he could see right through her.
She stood up, thinking she might feign an appointment across town so she could leave, but instead she found herself walking over to him, her feet carrying her as the sea might carry a ship, its occupant feeling nothing but the occasional surge and drop, so that it seems impossible any forward progress should be made at all, until suddenly she found herself next to him. He was so hard to read, and yet sometimes – like now – when he smiled, copper eyes alight and white teeth glinting, he seemed an open book. Nell couldn’t think what to say. She just knew she liked being near him.
“What else are we allowed to talk about?” he asked. The kettle groaned, and steam puffed proudly from its nose. He removed it from the stove.
“You looked about to say something before your client came in,” Nell said.
“Remind me what we were discussing.”
“Moorings. On second thought, read the letter and then let me know what you think.” She paused. “Do you ever miss it? Your homeland.”
“It was so long ago, sometimes I’m not sure if I’m remembering it or just recalling stories I’ve been told.”
“So tell me one.”
“Tell you a story?”
He thought for a minute. “I was standing on the beach with my mother. I must have been maybe five years old. It was late in the day, and the sun was this blazing orange ball in the sky that got lower and lower and seemed to make the waves sparkle. My mother says that when it touched the horizon I asked if it was going to set the water on fire.” Bettencourt paused and raked his hair back with one hand. “God, that must have been thirty years ago. She used to love to tell that story. She thought I was brilliant. But then I suppose all mothers think their children brilliant.”
“Not all,” Nell said, scooping out the tea leaves from the tin. Mr. Bettencourt glanced at her, and she caught his eye with a look that said she did not wish to talk about it. So they stood there, drinking their tea, chatting of this and that, nothing of much seriousness or importance, but Nell was oddly happy. She thought she could have stayed talking to him like that for hours, but she knew no one reads a book for the end to come immediately after the beginning; they read for the enjoyment, for the delicious uncovering, for the anticipation and the promise, being fulfilled with every page, of a satisfying experience, so when Nell had finished her tea, they said goodbye, and the sun seemed to shine a little brighter on her long walk home.