BEAUTY POSSESSED - Opening few pages

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THE MURDER

 

            Shall I tell you how I murdered him; how I murdered the man I loved? I can tell it, now that the trials are over, and now that I can see more clearly my culpability.

          It’s the opening night performance of the Roof Garden’s latest pastiche, Mamzelle Champagne. The Roof Garden Theater is an open-air restaurant, atop Madison Square Garden. A terrace surrounded by a colonnade, with a stage for theatrical productions, all beneath a tower, soaring over three hundred feet into the air, and topped with a large bronze statue of the goddess Diana, balancing necked, on one foot, atop a rotating ball, so that she can turn with the wind.

          I’m being photographed, sitting at a table. The photographer is Daniel Weyland. He’s photographed me many times before and is perfectly suited for his occupation, for he seems to have a cognitive sense for newsworthy things about to happen. That’s why he’s there at the Roof Garden Theater tonight and why he’s asking permission to take just one more photograph of me, sitting alone at the dinner table. I hold on to a smile just long enough for the flash. Then he tips his hat and is about to walk away but pauses, a look on his face seeming to betray some knowledge of the thing he senses is about to happen. My smile quickly fades. The truth is I am yet unaware of my part in what is about to happen, the control I have over it. Not consciously aware. So he walks away and I resume my search out over the audience for my husband, “Harry K. Thaw of Pittsburg”, the phrase Harry is accustomed to using when introducing himself to strangers. As if heir to forty million dollars and controlling interest in the Pennsylvania Railroad were not entitlement enough to some minor genuflection.  The restaurant is filled to capacity with New York’s finest, finely dressed, eating, drinking, watching and thoroughly enjoying the opening night performance. The show began with a pretty girl popping out of a papier-mache champagne bottle and singing.

          There he is, my husband, pacing back and forth nervously in front of the stage. It’s a hot June night but Harry is wearing a long winter coat and a scarf wrapped around his neck. Odd, but not for Harry, who’s eccentricities are as dark and deep-set as the moods he often falls into.

            My first impression of  “Harry K. Thaw of Pittsburg” was of a man whose face attracts and at the same time repels: a curious look in his eyes, a sinister brutality about the mouth. But he was a persistent suitor, and so for that and other reasons, I had married him, just over one year ago, at the age of twenty.

            Harry is standing with his back to the stage, looking out over the audience, with a dark, fixed stare. Up on the stage, two actors have begun to play out a dueling scene with pistols in their hands. Several tables of people are becoming irritated at Harry, blocking their view of the performance. I motion for him to come back to the table and he reluctantly starts back.

            Just then, a stir begins in the back corner of the restaurant as Stanford White enters and is warmly greeted. Six feet, two inches, in his early fifties, Stanford has flaming red hair and a thick mustache bristling as if charged with electricity.

            On stage, twenty beautiful chorus girls dance on and the lead actor begins to sing "I Could Love A Million Girls", a proper fanfare, considering Stannie’s reputation. He makes his way down through the tables, nodding to one, stopping to talk at another. He seemes more the star of the evening than the performers. Finally he arrives at the table, which has been reserved for him, directly in front of the stage and center, for he is, after all, the producer of the show, as well as the designer of the building. He sits and is greeted by the couple sitting at the next table. Now Harry sees Stanford and springs to his feet. I grab hold of his arm and plead with him to sit back down, but he pulls free and starts across toward Stanford’s table. Stan has turned his attention to the lovely showgirls, up on the stage, whispering amongst themselves with excitement over his arrival. Harry makes his way down to the front of the stage then crosses, stopping in front of Stan's table. Stan looks up at him. Harry leans over, whispers something into Stan’s ear, steps back, reaches into his overcoat and pulls out a revolver. I spring to my feet. “Stanny!”, I cry out, but the sound is lost beneath the gaiety of music and singers and laughter from the audience. Harry pulls the trigger and Stan's head snaps back. Harry pulls the trigger a second time and Stanford begins to slide out of his chair, pulling the tablecloth off with him. Harry shoots a third time and the table tips over as Stan falls to the floor. Silverware slides away and is lost beneath the other tables. A wine glass explodes against the floor, sending dark pools of red and shards of glass into a million glittering pieces. On stage, the singing and dancing stop. One at a time, the musicians fall silent, until finally, the entire cast is standing, not quite able to comprehend what has happened. Thinking it is part of the performance, someone from the audience laughs loudly. Stan is lying flat on his back, a crimson pool of blood spreading out beneath him. He would have liked the color.

          Lying there, looking up, he can see Diana, balanced on top of the tower he himself had designed and the first decent breeze of the evening turns her away from him. A subtle smile plays across his face as he remembers the night he and Gus had unveiled her to the public. What a row they had caused.

           That was the “how”. And you may think that, since Harry had pulled the trigger, I didn’t actually kill Stannie. But it’s just as often the things we do not do that shape the events of our lives. Words left unsaid, questions unanswered, the choices we make which shape our guilt by exclusion. Now if you ask “why” I killed the man I loved, which would be a better question, I would have to tell you more of the story. And you will probably draw your own conclusions before I’ve come back around again to the end of it. Only because I’m not quite sure of the “why”. The “how” is a simple string of events. But the “why” requires I understand everything that has happened to me in the short period of time that represents my life, leading up to Stannie’s death.

            The media circus that settled upon the course of what followed that night, did what it does best, by condensing the whys down to an easily digestible rhetoric, a shorthand of emotions, for which the public could quickly understand, so as to move on to the more important issues of what I was wearing at the trials or

who the designers of so and so’s hat or gown might have been. The more familiar elements of that rhetoric, jealousy, blind rage, sex and revenge, were easily justified in the public’s mind when Harry chose to use “The Unwritten Law” as his primary defense, during the trial. Written or not, it was an argument that did little to assuage my growing sense of guilt, and why I will tell you how it is that I was led to this time and place. How I came to be a captive in a gilded cage, or so it seemed to me at the time, trapped between two men of great power, wealth and prestige.

            But before I go back there, back to Tarentum, let me tell you why it is that my lover, lying there in a pool of his own blood, is smiling, as he looks up and sees his precious Diana turning from him.