The Last Dollar Princess
Set in the last gasp of the Gilded Age as it rushes into the Edwardian Era, The Last Dollar Princess tells the story of India Elisabeth Petra De Vries Ledbetter, a girl born to great wealth who learns the importance of finding her true self no matter the cost.
Pisgah, North Carolina
Wooden drapery rings clattering over their rods shattered the room’s quiet. India didn’t move, but opening one eye to half mast, peeked toward the window. From beneath her lashes, she eyed the figure marching toward the bed. My goodness, there was such determination in every step. Well, it would be answered with some of her own. Being awakened at such an hour was ridiculous. No sunlight yet played across the oriental carpet or created tiny rainbows in the crystal prisms hanging from her dresser lamps. India pulled a pillow over her head and squeezed her eyes shut.
“Oh do get up.” The disgusted tone reached India beneath the pillow while layers of bed linens muffled the shaking being given her shoulder. “We will be late for the train.” Mother yanked on the blankets as India pulled them closer.
India rolled over. “Must we go to New York?” The whine in her voice sounded childish, but so what? It was all really too much to be borne. Why couldn’t they just let her go on as she was? Who was she hurting?
“You know perfectly well why we’re going. Your grandmother is expecting us by the fifteenth. We cannot disappoint her. Now, get up or I will drag you from that bed by the hair of your head. I am having your breakfast sent up on a tray.” Mother’s agitation cut through the bedclothes. Nerves generally dictated her mood and it appeared they were now ratcheted up to breaking.
Only when India sat before the dresser mirror in a hunter green traveling tweed suit with her maid, Althea, buzzing about arranging her hair did Mother leave the room. Peace at last. It might be only for a few moments, but it must be relished. There was so little of it these days. Thwarting Mother once she had set her mind was a near impossible task.
Dressed for travel and blessedly alone for a moment, India went to the west window. Dawn’s rays illuminated the bluish mist hanging about the mountains tops. Her chest tightened and tears welled up. She had loved this view all of her life. These were her mountains, all her own. She never tired of them. In winter, their peaks glistened with snow. Wild azaleas, laurel, and rhododendron painted them in whites, pinks, corals, and pale yellows in spring. When summer temperatures rose in the valleys, they provided respite, but the grandest of all was autumn. In that most glorious of seasons, the peaks and hollows of the Blue Ridge Mountains blazed with reds, purples, yellows, and oranges finer than any artist ever put to canvas. It was then that the words of her old nursemaid, Nanny Gordon, came back to her. “You was borned and bred in these here mountains and mountain folkses have always knowed where they’s gonna be buried. It’s what makes us’uns different from them flatland ijots.” India couldn’t have agreed more. She knew she would be buried in the family plot on the hill just beyond her window. The Falls had always been her home. No matter how far she roamed, she would ultimately return. That promise to herself made what lay ahead bearable.
A knock at the door broke the spell and India turned to find Althea shifting from one foot to the other. “Mrs. Ledbetter says you better come downstairs right now.” As India drew near, the maid leaned in and whispered, “She is not in a very good mood, so look out.” Luck had been with her the day India discovered Aletha dressing another maid’s hair, a ladies’ magazine open on the long oak dining table. It hadn’t taken much persuasion to entice Althea out of the kitchen and into her bedroom as lady’s maid. Mother had first been appalled, then skeptical, and finally jealous.
At the top of the grand staircase, India paused and gazed at the scene in the foyer below. Mother stood at the base of the stairs tapping her foot and shouting last minute orders to the butler and his minions, who scurried about doing her bidding. The pile of traveling cases diminished with each trip to the carriage and wagons lined up just outside the mahogany double entry doors. A casual observer might be forgiven for thinking the Ledbetter family was leaving The Falls never to return. India rolled her eyes and sighed. Packing so much had been a ridiculous waste of time, but Mother would not countenance anything less. She had plans for their stay in New York and woe be unto anyone who got in her way.
India squared her shoulders and began her descent. Mother’s gaze lit upon her as she neared the last step.
“It’s about time you appeared.” Mother, Petra as she was called, scanned India’s traveling attire. “I suppose that will have to do. Trains, like tides, wait for no man, including you, young lady.”
India swallowed hard and plastered on her most charming smile. Attempting a soothing tone, she replied, “I believe an hour to travel the two miles to the Pisgah Depot should be sufficient. Since Papa had the road paved last year, getting down the mountain has not been a problem.” India frowned and scanned the hall. “Is Papa not coming with us?”
“No. He and I agreed he would stay in North Carolina.”
India’s heart grew heavier. “But won’t his absence seem odd?”
Mother’s lips curled into a sneer. “Perhaps, but you know how he hates New York. He is also still complaining of his chest.”
“Is Papa so ill? Maybe we shouldn’t go either.”
“He’s not really sick. He just likes to take on. One of the many reasons he should stay here. Furthermore, it is my wish. His presence would only complicate matters. We will say he can’t get away due to business concerns.”
Mother couldn’t be let off the hook so easily. India drew a breath and blew it out quickly. “He has no business concerns, which everyone in New York surely knows. Other than meeting with the estate manager once a week and agreeing to whatever he proposes, Papa is really rather idle.” India hated herself for the brutal nature of her comment, but that did not change the truth. As much as she loved Papa, he gave in to Mother too often. His failure to stand up to her could be infuriating at times.
“That is beside the point.” Mother jabbed her index finger in India’s direction. “Your father indulges you in your fantasies, so he would only be an encumbrance. Your future is at stake and I will ensure that no mistakes are made. At nineteen, you can hardly go on as you are.” With a final survey of the foyer, she continued, “Let’s go to the carriage without further delay.” Glancing over India’s shoulder, Mother continued, “Althea, ride on the second baggage wagon and make sure that driver takes care not to jostle our things. My maid will take the first wagon.”
India followed her mother into the first cool air of autumn and into the waiting carriage. As the vehicle made its way down the mountain, India soaked in the final views of home and considered her situation. Her future? No one had asked India what she wanted. Given her druthers, she would have continued her education at Davenport Female College in Lenoir, but Mother had insisted time spent at such an undistinguished institution would be ludicrous given her prospects. Mother had suggested two years finishing in Switzerland, but India had objected so strenuously that for once Mother had given up. Time had drifted by with mother and daughter in a stalemate and now they were headed to the life Mother had known as a girl before she married Robert, only son and heir of Wall Street and oil tycoon Thomas Jefferson Ledbetter. As the carriage passed the waterfall from which the estate took its name, India leaned from the window and craned her neck for a final glimpse of The Falls, unsure when she would return, but return she would. Mother could maneuver, finagle, and try to manipulate all she wanted. India would set her own course no matter the cost.
India stretched her back and rolled her shoulders. She lifted the shade and gazed at the sun washed New Jersey countryside speeding past the train window. Fallen leaves in shades of red and gold swirled in the gusts created by the train’s wheels while dairy cows on a hillside pasture nodded and blinked at the noise of their passing. The scene reminded her so much of home. India pinched the inside of her upper arm to forestall tears. For better or worse, they would be in New York within the hour. Massaging the back of her neck, she sniffed her underarm. A long soak in one of the mammoth clawfoot bathtubs was in order as soon as they arrived at Grandmother’s townhouse. Despite the luxurious appointments of the family’s private car, twenty five hours being jostled on a train had left her cranky and out of sorts. Mother had elected to breakfast in the dining room, but India couldn’t eat. It was too early and the car’s rocking left her slightly nauseated. She could wait until luncheon without ill effect. Thank goodness Grandmother was able to keep an excellent cook.
India dropped the shade and scooted back in her seat, an smile lifting one corner of her mouth. Of course, Papa’s inherited fortune paid for the cook, the butler, the maids, and everything else that Mother’s parents had enjoyed. It had been part of the marriage settlement. Mother’s family, the Van de Bergs, were old money New York who had fallen on hard times before Mother and Papa married. With what some wags at the time referred to as the merger of the century, the Van de Bergs gained a portion of the Ledbetter wealth and ole Grandpa Thomas Jefferson “T.J.” Ledbetter gained a little secondhand respectability. Unfortunately, Mother had never forgiven Papa for being the son of a nouveau riche, social-climbing-nobody from the mountains of North Carolina. India sighed. The prospect of Grandmother Van de Berg’s friends once again inspecting her like she was some exotic insect from the wilds of Appalachia filled her with dread. It happened every time they traveled north, so she should be accustomed to it by now. Nonetheless, it still galled. Dropping her head against the seat, she closed her eyes. If she couldn’t sleep, at least she could rest. She needed all her strength for what was to come.
The train chugged into Pennsylvania Station at mid-morning. India pulled down the sash and wrinkled her nose at the odor of coal smoke drifting into the carriage. In spite of the soot particles that lingered in the air, she leaned out through the window for a better look at New York’s newest homage to the Industrial Age. Porters bustled about assisting passengers with their baggage. Ladies and gentlemen in elegant attire stepped down from carriages onto platforms that shone bright and clean. This portion of the station had been open for less than a month and there were plans for the facility to be fully operational by November. India looked up and shaded her eyes with her hand. Over the tracks and the main concourse on the balcony level above were ceiling panels made of glass held together by iron dividers. At the end of the building, a huge arched window admitted sunlight that highlighted metal staircase banisters and balcony railings. The whole structure was supported by iron columns, girders, and arches similar in design to those used by medieval architects. Wide-eyed, India’s head swiveled in every direction as she laughed aloud. Pennsylvania Station was a Gothic cathedral of transportation in glass and steel. Maybe arriving in the amazing space would make visiting Grandmother feel a little less daunting in the future.
Mother appeared in the doorway to India’s compartment and entered without knocking.“Get out of that window before you ruin your dress. It’s time to depart for the townhouse.”
India jerked back so fast that she banged her head on the window. After rubbing the tender spot raised by the sash, she straightened her hat then cast a wary eye over her dress. Thank goodness it was unsoiled. She smoothed the wrinkles from her skirt, picked up her handbag, and followed her mother onto the platform.
Once they reached the columned portico, India scanned the cabs and vehicles lining the street awaiting passengers. “I don’t see Grandmother’s chauffeur. Have they hired someone new? I hope not. I always liked James.”
Mother’s face darkened and her lips thinned. “Your father has decided that your grandmother is not in need of a chauffeur. He reduced the annuity that paid James’s salary and for the limousine among other things.”
“But I thought the money was settled for life.”
“Oh, no. The actual amount to be paid was not part of our marriage contracts. I objected strenuously, but your father seemed not to care. In his opinion, New York has perfectly fine transportation for hire. Furthermore, he believes my mother will not be out about town as much as she once was, and I quote, since she no longer has a daughter for sale. He can be so vulgar at times. I suppose one should expect no better from the son of a social climbing hillbilly, but I really thought the years with my family had had an improving effect.”
“Mother, really. How can you say such things? Papa is wonderful and he’s very good to you and all of your relatives. If he thinks Grandmother is capable of paying for her own luxuries, I am sure he is right.” India stifled a smile. Papa occasionally roused himself to thwart Mother when she had pushed him too far with her imperious ways.
“So says the girl born with a silver spoon who has never wanted for anything. Your father has spoiled you. Under no circumstances are you to express such uncharitable views to your grandmother. She, like my dear father until his untimely death, has suffered enough humiliation.”
India let the subject of her grandparents’ suffering drop. She could recite their misfortunes word-for-word as Mother never wavered in recounting them. Glancing over her shoulder at the porter guarding their baggage, she settled on practical matters. “How are we to get to the Square?”
“Your father has arranged a hired driver and automobile for the duration of our stay. The maids and luggage will follow by taxi. I believe that man over there is holding a sign with our name on it. Hurry before anyone we might know notices.”
The vehicle left the station, traveled east to Fifth Avenue, and turned south. It was a drive India had taken once per year since she was deemed old enough to accompany Mother on her annual pilgrimage to visit Grandmama. As she grew, India had come to realize that visiting Mother’s parent was a euphemism for reconnecting with the social season of which Pisgah, North Carolina was so notably lacking. Mother was in her element for an entire month before the enforced return to the Wilderness, as she called The Falls and the village of Pisgah abutting their estate. India watched with interest as the mansions, hotels, and tall buildings of the central city evolved into the structures of old New York. So much had changed on Fifth since their previous visit, but Lower Manhattan seemed to knock down and build up at a slower pace. When they reached Washington Square, relief washed through her. Nothing that mattered had changed. The Arch still stood sentinel. The park’s trees flamed at the peak of their fall glory. Water splashed into the pool at the fountain’s base. She might dread her grandmother, but she loved the Square. Her happiest memories of New York lay among the park’s grassy patches and under its trees. No matter how full their calendar, she would find a way to spend time there. It was the closest thing to home the city offered.
The limousine turned left onto Washington Square North. India inspected each house as the automobile rolled past. Thank goodness. Not a single one of the lovely old Greek Revival townhouses of The Row had been altered. When they stopped in front of Number 5, India clasped her hands to prevent fidgeting. The Van de Bergs had lived at Number 5 since it was completed in 1833. She cast a speculative gaze over her grandmother’s home. Other than peeling paint on the wrought iron fence guarding the tiny front garden, the house appeared in good repair. The white columns and trim on the stoop gleamed. The windows shone. The red brick walls stood four stories tall and sturdy as the day they were built. Presumably the public rooms on the first floor remained as beautiful as ever, if decidedly dated. Their Federal style of pastel green walls, simple white ceiling medallions and crown moldings, and Duncan Phyfe furniture were of a much earlier period. India loved the lightness and brightness of those interiors. They were in marked contrast to the heavy furniture and dark wood interiors that were the current fashion. Perhaps she had been born to the wrong generation.
The hired chauffeur opened the rear passenger door and stood at attention. Before exiting the vehicle, India rolled her lips over her teeth and pinched her cheeks. It was always wise to look one’s best when entering the lion’s den.
India stepped down from the automobile and shook the folds from her skirt. A little flutter played just beneath her breastbone as it did every time she approached Grandmama’s domain. She drew a long breath, let it out slowly, and followed her mother through the front gate.
Spencer, the butler, opened the door and stood aside for them to enter. “Welcome, Madame, Miss India.” The only part of his face that moved was his mouth by necessity to allow speech. Without a smile or any other facial expression, he continued, “Please follow me to the parlor. Mrs. Van de Berg awaits you there.” If Spencer had been German, at that point he would have clicked his heels and made a precise forty-five degree bow. As he was English, he simply turned and began what could only be termed the March To The Parlor. His posture was such that he hardly moved above the knees, but he stepped with purpose. India sucked her lower lip between her teeth and stifled a giggle. Nothing within the house had changed, either.
Arriving at the parlor door, the butler announced them and then glided away into the bowels of the service area. India straightened her posture, drew a long breath, and plastered on her most confident smile. Swishing into the room, she advanced upon the figure positioned beside the fireplace. Just like Number 5 Washington Square, its occupant never seemed to change. Grandmama could pass for a woman of sixty, but her age was closer to seventy-five. Her back was as straight as the brass poker resting among its companions in the hearth tool rest. The cut and detailing of her ensemble spoke of a slightly earlier style. Not completely outdated, but not of the latest fashion. Its aubergine hue enhanced the platinum highlights in her otherwise snowy hair and the luster of her pale skin. She was not beautiful in the traditional sense, but when she entered a room, all heads turned in her direction. Words India had heard used to describe Elisabeth “Betsy” De Vries Van de Berg drifted through her mind - formidable, handsome, forthright, a force, but never maternal. India came to rest before her grandmother, bending to plant the briefest of kisses on her remarkably unlined cheek. Displays of familial affection were expected, but must never be excessive. India had learned that dictum as a small child when her exuberant embrace had been rebuffed time and time again. The memory still rankled.
Grandmama received the kiss as her due then cast an appraising gaze over India. “You appear to have slept in your clothes. I assume you brought other day dresses?”
“You look well, also, Grandmama. And yes, I believe we have packed our entire wardrobes.” Did her grandmother catch the hint of sarcasm in India’s voice? If she did, she chose to ignore it. A little bubble of satisfaction swelled within India. Score one for the younger generation.
“Good. You will have time in which to make yourself presentable.” Turning her attention to Mother, Grandmama continued, “Petra, dear, you look frightful. Whatever are you wearing?”
Mother wilted under Grandmama’s scrutiny. This aspect of their relationship never changed. India swallowed hard as a prick of conscience said she should feel some sympathy, but the only emotion presenting itself was a small jolt of irritation. Perhaps if Mother was kinder about Papa, India could muster more pity now. But then, who was she to criticize her mother for observing convention? She was in thrall to Mother’s whims, moods, and desires, which is why she was here in New York instead of at home in North Carolina. A silent sigh escaped India as she glanced away from the scene of intergenerational parrying. It never ceased. Women and girls must always bow to the expectations of fathers, husbands, and elder family members in general. It was simply the way things were.
Mother looked down at her skirt and gave it a shake before replying, “I…I thought since we were in our private carriage I would wear what was comfortable. It was a long journey.”
“Be that as it may, one must never give in. Did you bother to consider who might see you on the train platform? You know better, but I suppose living among Indians and hillbillies has tainted your view of what is appropriate. Why Robert insists on living in that godforsaken wilderness is unfathomable.”
Mother’s cheeks took on a rosy glow. “You know his reasons. He has expressed them often enough. Furthermore, The Falls is a far grander estate than any in New York.”
India cut her eyes at her mother. Bravo. For once Mother stood up to Grandmama. It never ceased to amaze that Mother, usually in charge of any situation, always melted like an ill-prepared meringue in the blast furnace of her own mother’s presence. In all probability most families were complicated, but with her family, it felt like hidden battles were constantly being fought beneath a glassy surface of social decorum.
The old woman arched an eyebrow. “Yes, I suppose. Given the obscene amount your father-in-law spent on it, I suppose grand is the word one might choose. Although, vulgar ostentation might come to mind, as well.” Grandmama was never one to cede a point without exacting a price. Dismissing the subject with a wave of her hand, she said, “We will take luncheon with Lady Clarissa and then go to Madame Osborne for fittings.”
“Madame Osborne? But she’s…” A withering glance silenced Mother.
India could sense her mother’s increasing agitation. Although irritated with the woman, abandoning Mother completely to Grandmama’s domineering violated India’s sense of fair play. Distraction and redirection were in order. “Grandmama, who is Lady Clarissa?”
Her grandmother took the bait. “She is the daughter of an English earl. She is also Mrs. Jonathan Rivers of 900 Fifth Avenue. The Rivers house is smaller than its neighbors, but it is exquisitely elegant, as one would expect of the English nobility. Lady Clarissa’s father was the Ninth Earl of Boulton.”
“My goodness. She sounds mighty grand. Why did she marry an American? Surely, she could have had her pick of earl’s and duke’s sons.”
Grandmother snorted. “Hardly. The old earl squandered the remnants of the family fortune on horses, women, and games of chance. They say his debts left the estate mortgaged to the hilt. The kindest thing Lady Clarissa’s father did before he died of alcoholism was to marry her off to Jonathan Rivers. At least he is able to keep her in the style she deserves.”
“So, how do you know her?”
“Oh, like one does. We have met at various functions since her marriage. The Rivers are not of the 400, of course, but they are perfectly respectable. The new rich can be quite nice when one looks beyond the deficiencies of their pedigrees.”
“That is rather uncharitable.”
“It is, but I have always believed in being frank among family. It prevents embarrassing misunderstandings.”
India opened her mouth to speak, but her mother’s hand on her arm silenced her. Petra stepped between granddaughter and grandmother. “Mama, we simply cannot purchase India’s ball gowns at Madame Osborne’s. She may be well enough for some, but India must make a proper entrance into society. Only Worth will do.”
“I did not intend for you to purchase from Madame Osborne, Petra dear. I, on the other hand, can afford no better since your husband has seen fit to reduce my allowance. I need new gowns if I am to introduce India properly. At least we have not lost our place among old New York. They are the people who really matter, after all.”
Engendering guilt and delivering a social cut in one brief soliloquy. Score two points to Grandmama. Oil was needed on these generational waters. India spread her hands in a gesture of supplication. “I am sure Madame Osborne will do quite well. Worth is lovely, but maybe we should patronize a New York designer. Surely Grandmama’s friends would approve.”
Petra sniffed. “How little you know. You were born among plebeians. You have no idea what is expected among our people.”
The sound of Grandmama’s hand hitting the table beside her chair made India jump. “Enough of this inane talk. Call your maids and prepare yourselves for the day.”
Clean, refreshed, and wearing an unwrinkled dress, India watched the mansions of Fifth Avenue float past the limousine window. She didn’t want to be here, but she was resigned to the inevitable. Her grandmother sat beside her on the last seat while her mother sat facing them on the opposite. The farther north they traveled, the more tension radiated from the two older women. If India allowed it, their anxiety would creep across the seats and grab her by the throat, so she clasped her hands to prevent fidgeting and concentrated on the passing scenery.
When they reached Numbers 840 and 841, Mother let out a sigh. “Do you remember Mrs. Astor’s ball during my debutant year? It was the most beautiful event of the season and my dress was the prettiest I’ve ever worn.” A wistful expression softened the expression in Mother’s eyes. “David Havermayer proposed to me that night.”
A little thrill crawled through India. She glanced at her grandmother and then her mother. A definite pall had fallen over Mother while grandmother simply looked bored and irritated. Unable to hold it in any longer, India asked, “So who is David Havermayer and why didn’t you marry him?”
“Because,” Grandmama interjected with a note of derision, “he would not have been able to support your mother in the fashion she wanted.”
The whoosh of Mother’s breath would have reached the driver had the privacy glass not been closed. A red flush crawled upward from her throat. “You mean the manner in which you and Papa wanted.” She looked at India with glittering eyes. “He was handsome and from one of the oldest families in the city. After Mama and Father made me turn him down, he went to his family’s Long Island cottage and refused to come back until the season was over. I was told by his sister that I had broken his heart. I sometimes wonder what life with him would have been like.”
Grandmama harrumphed. “Decidedly poorer.”
India sighed inwardly. Mother had never made it much of a secret that she sometimes regretted marrying Papa, but this was truly unsettling. Poor Papa. Mother always said he was madly in love with her when he proposed. Mother, on the other hand, was less enamored. India now understood why. It seemed that Mother had not quite forgotten this David from the old 400 family.
The automobile began to slow, stopping at the end of the block in front of Number 900. In comparison to its neighbors, it was a moderate sized Brownstone with an elegant stoop and magnificently ornate iron and glass entry. Grandmama led the way up the steps and was met immediately by the Rivers butler who showed them into the drawing room where a lovely blonde woman aged about thirty sat upon a Louis XVI settee. India’s breath caught in her throat as she stifled a gasp. Lady Clarissa’s costume, her furnishings, the room in general were of the most elegant design. The scene did not speak of current trends yet no one would say it was unfashionable. Timeless was the word that came to mind. Palest pink walls finished by cream crown molding with a carved formal motif encased a space that held fine French antiques and Aubusson carpets. India tried not to stare, but the effect was quite startling. It was the most beautiful scene she had ever encountered. After brief introductions and small talk, the trio adjourned to a glass inclosed space housing a small jungle of potted palms and assorted shrubs and flowering plants. A linen draped table for four sat just inside the enclosure. Sunlight glimmered over china, crystal, and sterling. The effect was lovely as was everything about this Lady Clarissa and her home.
Lady Clarissa, seated at the head of the table, rang for luncheon to be served. “I hope you are not overly tired from your journey. Perhaps we should have postponed until tomorrow?”
Grandmama smiled, but it seemed to India that a slight nervousness hid behind the upwardly curved lips. “My daughter and granddaughter were quite eager to make your acquaintance, dearest Lady Clarissa. They would not dream of inconveniencing you with a last minute postponement, but you are most gracious to be concerned for their comfort.”
Since India had not heard of Lady Clarissa until two hours ago, her burning desire to see the lady was something of a revelation. India shot an inquiring look across the table, but Mother averted her eyes. A tingle ran down India’s spine. There was something furtive in the way Mother refused to meet her gaze. India glanced at Grandmama whose behavior toward Lady Clarissa could only be termed obsequious. Grandmama rarely bowed to anyone. In fact, India had never once seen her treat another person as she was Lady Clarissa. Mother and Grandmama were up to something. They had clearly been plotting, but India could not discern to what end.