THE LADIES’ AQUATIC GARDENING SOCIETY
First published in Asimov’s Science Fiction, June 2015,
edited by Sheila Williams.
Reprinted with permission from Dell Magazines, a Division of Penny Publications, LLC.
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Mrs. Howland-Thorpe vs. Mrs. Fleming, Battle One
In Which Mrs. Howland-Thorpe Loses Her Seating
At Supper Four Seats from Mrs. Vanderbilt and Blames That Italienne Creature, Mrs. Fleming.
Mrs. Fleming Prevails.
Good sense advises that it is not prudent to make war against the garden of a lady of breeding and society with words, moles and voles, or combustibles, for she shall grow cross and vengeful.
Mrs. Honoria Orrington Howland-Thorpe came of family of no particular distinction. The Orringtons had once begun to build some beginning towards a fortune in whaling but that was gone now and long ago, after the carcass of one specimen was left too long unbutchered on the dock and the foetid gases growing in its belly as it decayed caused it to explode all over the street, resulting in a series of lawsuits that were small in value but legion in number and unending in appearance, which eventually reduced the Orrington business and family name to nothing worth noting. They were now far from among the first families in Boston. They saw in Honoria, possessed of an unearthly beauty and famed for her complexion, the last great hope of their line and did all in their power to send her to Farmington for the finishing of her education, though it caused them to have to repair to a house in the Fens to pay for it. Honoria made good return on the investment and married Tiberius Howland-Thorpe, as much for his railway fortune as for his relations, and thought well of the placement, although looking at his features produced in her a state of mild but constant irritation that continued without cease for the next 50 years. Together, they managed to keep themselves on the invitation list to sup at Marble House with Mrs. Alva Vanderbilt and her husband each summer at Newport.
Mrs. Cecilia Contarini Fleming was a great beauty of foreign extraction. She was the last of a noble Italian family that could trace its lineage back to ancient Etruscan lines but whose prospects had grown more modest with each successive generation. She married Patrick Fleming, an industrialist of humble origins who made his fortune importing combustibles from the Orient and selling them to interests who employed them in the laying of railways and the hollowing of mines. Mrs. Fleming had been among the first women to study at Newnham College at Cambridge and had followed her education not with the customary Grand Tour Abroad, for, being an Italienne, she was from abroad, but with several years in Japan studying lacquerie, gardening, and poetry, and then a brief tour traveling with missionaries in Africa. She could dance, sew, sing, play the pianoforte, draw, paint, compose poetry, compose music, ride, fence, perform archery, and read and speak Greek, Latin, Italian, French, English, and Japonais.
Before Mrs. Fleming arrived in Newport, Mrs. Howland-Thorpe had been famed for the grandeur of her rose gardens, which all Newport society had declared among the most original of the age, for they, when viewed from a height atop the viewing pedestals, reproduced the tableaux of famed paintings by the Flemish masters. Mrs. Howland-Thorpe’s garden had for several seasons been gilded with the honor of being the first that Mrs. Alva Vanderbilt visited during each summer’s garden tour among the great houses of Newport. Mrs. Vanderbilt could hardly have bestowed her attention upon a more grateful object and the distinction turned Mrs. Howland-Thorpe a peculiar mixture of haughtiness and sycophancy.
Alas, all of that changed when Mrs. Fleming and her husband purchased the great chateau next to the Howland-Thorpes’ home and Mrs. Fleming took it upon herself to plant a garden of her own.
Mrs. Fleming’s new garden was of no style that Newport society had ever seen. It was neither French nor was it English. It was composed of neither grand geometric promenades à la Française nor meandering paths laid for lonely contemplation in the English style. It was, to the contrary, a style of Mrs. Fleming’s own devising, mixing the green upon green and the water stairs of Italianate gardens with the shocking spareness and otherlandish asymmetries of the Oriental aesthetic. It used only plants that were native to the region of Newport, for Mrs. Fleming was a voluble promoter of creating gardens in harmony with their natural environs.
It was the first garden that Mrs. Alva Vanderbilt chose to visit during this season’s garden tour.
The first evening of the summer season was of course Mrs. Vanderbilt’s. The party was all delighted agitation to find that the dining table at Marble House was set with orchids, ferns, and hollyhocks, and that live hummingbirds, cleverly cemented to slender reeds, buzzed unmoving in mid-air amid the flowers. Mrs. Howland-Thorpe, however, found herself unable to embrace the jollity of the evening with the whole of her enthusiasm, for she discovered that Mrs. Vanderbilt had not seated her four seats from herself as had been the convention in past seasons. To the contrary, Mrs. Howland-Thorpe and her husband were now seated eight and nine seats down from the center of the table where Mrs. Vanderbilt was seated. She felt the offense even more grievously when she saw that Mrs. Fleming was seated but four seats from Mrs. Vanderbilt.
How shocking that that Italienne creature with her Irish merchant husband should become the pet of Mrs. Alva Vanderbilt, thought Mrs. Howland-Thorpe to herself at supper nearly halfway to the end of the table from Mrs. Vanderbilt. The whole table seemed beguiled by that foreigner’s reports of her travels in Africa. Who cares to hear of jungle savages and their language, thought Mrs. Howland-Thorpe. It is all very charming and sweet that they made up a language all by themselves, but it is hardly a subject for table conversation in refined company. And who cares to hear of teaching them to plant crops? They could continue eating zebras and each other and missionaries, for all Mrs. Howland-Thorpe cared. If this was what Newport society had stooped to, to vulgar worship of freakish novelty, then she would quit Newport society! Yet she kept her thoughts to herself and finished her filet instead.
Mrs. Howland-Thorpe vs. Mrs. Fleming, Battle Two
In Which Mrs. Howland-Thorpe and Mrs. Fleming Cause Each Other to Become Peevish.
Mrs. Fleming Prevails.
The following week was lively with luncheons and teas at various houses among the families of Newport. The week ended again with an invitation to sup on Friday evening at Marble House.
Mrs. Howland-Thorpe found that this time, she and her husband were seated ten and eleven seats down from Mrs. Vanderbilt. Mrs. Fleming was seated but two seats from Mrs. Vanderbilt across the table. Mrs. Fleming’s husband was not in attendance, having departed for the summer to California to sell a new form of combustibles that could explode in mine shafts drowned with groundwater.
After supper, the men left the women to their indulgences and quitted to their brandy and their more important conversation. The men were delighted to find that their hostess’ husband had laid out for them cigarettes rolled with $100 bills, which all agreed constituted the height of wit and which they happily smoked while debating the preferability of using Chinamen over other labourers due to their smaller stature and willingness to crawl into tighter spaces to lay combustibles for mining and track laying.
The women had to content themselves with repairing to the Gold Room with no more important diversion than conversation and turns about the room in pretty pairs, which quite satisfied as it gave them generous opportunity to promenade before each other in their newest acquisitions from Worth of Paris.
Mrs. Vanderbilt was so plainly enthralled by Mrs. Fleming that she appeared quite robbed of the ability to speak with anyone else the entire time. After seeing Mrs. Vanderbilt spend the greater part of the evening in conversation with Mrs. Fleming, whom no one had seen wear a single jewel of any importance yet that season, while speaking not a word to her, Mrs. Howland-Thorpe could bear it no longer. She crossed the room and approached their conversation.
“Pray, pardon my interjection, Alva, but I have not yet had the pleasure of an introduction to your friend,” said Mrs. Howland-Thorpe. Mrs. Vanderbilt made the introductions and the ladies curtsied to each other and declared their enchantment.
“Ah, a foreigner!” cried Mrs. Howland-Thorpe when she heard Mrs. Fleming speak. “Do. You. Understand. English?” she asked in broad, loud tones.
The room looked askance, embarrassed by Mrs. Howland-Thorpe’s ill-breeding, for all knew of Mrs. Fleming’s superior education and mannish learning. Mrs. Fleming answered her, in clear English, accented with lilting Italian tones, “No. Not. One. Single. Pitiable. Word.”
Mrs. Howland-Thorpe was much taken aback at this retort, but kept her countenance and replied, “Ah! How delightful. You speak excellent English.” She paused and added, “For a foreigner.”
Mrs. Fleming replied with a sweet smile, “And you speak excellent English as well. For an American.”
Mrs. Howland-Thorpe could think of no fitting reply to this quill. She gracelessly found feeble excuse to quit the conversation and turned her back to Mrs. Fleming and Mrs. Vanderbilt. As she made to chat gaily with other friends, she heard Mrs. Vanderbilt pick up her conversation with Mrs. Fleming. She stood within close distance so that she could hear their conversation while nodding at her friends’ conversation. She heard Mrs. Vanderbilt address Mrs. Fleming seven times as “Contessa Contarini” and four times as “My Dear Contessa.”
Mrs. Howland-Thorpe then proceeded to complain to the whole of the room of an aching head. She insisted at full voice that her being stricken by this affliction should not interfere with the evening and urged all to proceed forth with their own general amusement without her contribution. The lady was rewarded for her behavior by being helped to a fainting couch in a cloud of commotion, but the excitement occasioned by the incident quickly died down.
After some time, Mrs. Howland-Thorpe saw that Mrs. Vanderbilt was still as firmly stationed beside Mrs. Fleming as if her shoes were drilled into the floor. Mrs. Howland-Thorpe rose from her recline and declared that her headache had cured itself and that she was strong enough to endure the carriage ride home. No one protested her retirement.
The carriages leaving Marble House that evening were all filled with the same conversation. The guests were all of one mind: as between Mrs. Howland-Thorpe and Mrs. Fleming, it was the latter who prevailed at the night’s jousting.
Mrs. Howland-Thorpe vs. Mrs. Fleming, Battle Three
In Which Mrs. Howland-Thorpe Attempts to Exhibit Artistic Innovation of Her Own, to Disagreeable Result.
Mrs. Fleming Prevails.
After the calamitous second supper of the season at Marble House, it was plain to Mrs. Howland-Thorpe that she must fortify her garden if she did not wish to be pressed down Mrs. Vanderbilt’s list of guests until she dropped off entirely.
She directed her chief landscape architect Fergus Kelleher to spy upon Mrs. Fleming’s garden from atop the viewing towers in Mrs. Howland-Thorpe’s own garden. She instructed Kelleher to make her so well an Oriental-Italianate garden. To Mrs. Howland-Thorpe’s great irritation, Kelleher hesitated at the task, explaining that he had of late befriended the landscape architect that Mrs. Fleming employed, a Master Sugawara from the city of Kyoto in Japan. Kelleher explained that Master Sugawara had spoken enough English to convey to Kelleher the extraordinary refinement of the principles and values of Mrs. Fleming’s garden, which were woven with philosophical concepts from the thought and religion of the people of Japan, all of which were deeply foreign to Kelleher.
This was not the reply that Mrs. Howland-Thorpe had hoped to receive in response to her command. She then proceeded to draw out a plan, element for element, planting for planting, for Kelleher to execute for the next week’s garden party. Kelleher and his crew toiled mightily and transformed the garden to Mrs. Howland-Thorpe’s plan in time for the next party.
When the guests of the party arrived, they found the appearance of Mrs. Howland-Thorpe’s garden greatly altered from its state when last they toured it. Gasps rose among the circle. The ladies of the party found the garden ornamented with a profusion of Oriental pagodas of papier-mâché covered in violet and orange peonies and Italianate palazzi in plaster miniature covered in lime green chrysanthemums. The garden was a bacchanal of elements that exhibited such garishness and want of taste that no one could bear to look at any of it for more than a few moments. No one could decide if Mrs. Howland-Thorpe was mocking Mrs. Fleming’s garden or whether the garden was merely a spectacular failure of judgment.
Mrs. Vanderbilt turned to Mrs. Fleming on her arm (for Mrs. Howland-Thorpe could not but include Mrs. Fleming in the party, for Mrs. Howland-Thorpe knew that Mrs. Vanderbilt would not attend a party that so plainly excluded her new, dear pet) to see her reaction.
Mrs. Howland-Thorpe exclaimed, “I own that it is not the common sort of garden one sees, but an artiste must follow her own muse to create her work.”
Mrs. Fleming made to cup a hand to her mouth and said to Mrs. Vanderbilt in a whisper cast broadly enough for the entire party to hear, “I thought that it was artists who had to suffer for their work. Not the viewers.”
As soon as the party left, which was soon, Mrs. Howland-Thorpe without delay summoned Kelleher and let him go on the spot. Kelleher’s first thought was not of his wife and children. His first thought was that four years in Mrs. Howland-Thorpe’s employ was four years too many. He gathered what things he kept on the premises and walked next door to Mrs. Fleming’s home, where he begged to apprentice under Master Sugawara. Mrs. Fleming hired him instantly.
After the calamitous events of the morning, Mrs. Howland-Thorpe retired for the day to nurse an aching head. When she emerged from her convalescence, she went out to look at her garden one last time to see if she could discern in it what was so very different from what all of Newport saw in that Italienne creature’s garden. It was dusk and the light had gone from the sky. She beheld that with the departure of the light, the prospect of the garden had utterly changed. Where there had been in the bright day violet, there was now soft lilac. Where there had been orange, there was now salmon pink. Where there had been lime green, there was now pineapple. The garden was now filled with clouds of color rendered in soft pastels. If only she had been better acquainted with these eccentricities of the play of light on flowers, if only she had more perfectly comprehended the Science of the nature of color, she would have had the foresight to make her party a dusk party. And then, how different the reception might have been!
Mrs. Howland-Thorpe vs. Mrs. Fleming, Battle Four
In Which Mrs. Howland-Thorpe Ends By Fleeing Into the Safety of Her Own Home Followed by Thousands of Clawed Feet;
the Face of the Mona Lisa Suffers Grotesque Injury.
Mrs. Fleming Prevails.
Mrs. Howland-Thorpe felt all the direness of her position in Newport society after the disastrous debut of her Oriental-Italianate garden. She knew that she was but one or two missteps from eternal shunning and banishment from society.
She hired a new landscape architect with the surname of Palladio, which, he told her, was most auspicious in his profession, being the name of the great Venetian architect, and returned to her convention of planting roses that formed the patterns of famed paintings. She had whole, grown rose bushes unearthed and brought at great expense to her garden, and stripped by hand of their leaves and thorns, so that they were all blossoms and stems, and planted in a pattern to resemble the likeness of the Mona Lisa, who was also created by an Italian. She hoped that this new garden would achieve the gesture towards the Continental that would please Mrs. Vanderbilt, while at once cleaving close to what Mrs. Howland-Thorpe knew how to do and what Mrs. Vanderbilt had once declared all delight and enchantment before that Italienne creature came to darken the sky over Mrs. Howland-Thorpe’s garden.
The debut of the Mona Lisa garden was scheduled for a luncheon upon Mrs. Howland-Thorpe’s terrace. The viewing towers from which a survey of the entire garden could be gained also afforded ample view of Mrs. Fleming’s garden. Nothing would give Mrs. Howland-Thorpe greater happiness in life than for Mrs. Vanderbilt to ascend the viewing tower and see not only Mrs. Howland-Thorpe’s Mona Lisa garden in all its splendour but also to look over and see Mrs. Fleming’s garden hideously destroyed.
Towards that end, Mrs. Howland-Thorpe had Palladio contact a renowned naturalist at Brown University in Providence. The naturalist in turn referred Palladio to a society of naturalists that captured pests such as moles, voles, and other odious creatures in Roger Williams Park and held them until they could be released unharmed into the deeper wilds of New England where they would molest no one. Mrs. Howland-Thorpe had Palladio purchase 900 recently acquired live moles and voles from the society.
She would unleash the moles and the voles into Mrs. Fleming’s garden. The moles would instantly dig a lattice of tunnels underneath Mrs. Fleming’s garden in search of grubs. The voles would use the tunnels created by the moles to travel from the roots of one plant to another, which they would eat. The voles would also hollow out nests among the roots of the plants in Mrs. Fleming’s garden, exposing the roots to air and causing them to wilt, shrivel, and die.
The day before the release of the moles and the voles was uncommonly warm. The sun baked the paving-stones of the grounds of Mrs. Howland-Thorpe’s estate until she could feel the heat rising in waves as she walked across them and feel it beginning to roast her feet through her shoes.
That evening, after the sun set, she gathered with Palladio and his crew with the sacks filled with moles and voles. She hoped that the heat of the day had not taken too high a toll on the population of vermin and that enough had survived to destroy Mrs. Fleming’s garden.
Palladio and his men stood with their great sacks writhing with moles and voles at the edge of the boundary between Mrs. Howland-Thorpe’s property and Mrs. Fleming’s. Mrs. Howland-Thorpe stood far aback from the property line. She instructed the men not to cross the boundary for she would commit no trespass upon the property of Mrs. Fleming nor give her occasion to seek legal redress.
The men opened the mouths of the sacks and the moles and the voles boiled within, eager to drink in the cool night air after being confined all the day in the sacks during the height of summer.
The men heaved the moles and the voles over the property line onto Mrs. Fleming’s garden.
What Mrs. Howland-Thorpe had not accounted for, though, was the strange Japonais garden of raked pebbles and stones that bordered the whole of Mrs. Fleming’s property. The pebbles and stones had been seared all day by the sun and were still far too hot for the moles and the voles to creep upon.
As soon as the moles and the voles landed on the hot pebbles, they all of a body let out a great shriek, retreated from Mrs. Fleming’s garden, and swept back towards the cool grasses of Mrs. Howland-Thorpe’s own garden in a black, scrabbling tide of hair and nails.
Mrs. Howland-Thorpe saw the sea of moles and voles washing towards her and turned and fled with a great cry into the house.
By the next morning, the moles and the voles had dove into the earth, burying and burrowing into the fragrant, freshly tilled soil, ruining and leaving in terrible disarray all the rose bushes. Despite Palladio’s war to purge them, by the week’s end, the Mona Lisa’s face was crossed with the lines of the moles’ and the voles’ tunneling and marked with pocks like a leper.
Mrs. Howland-Thorpe quickly had her man-servant deliver letters of regret that the luncheon had to be deferred until the heat of the summer relented. Then she let Palladio go, and sent him on his way in a hail of abuse upon his person and his race.
After Palladio departed, Mrs. Howland-Thorpe once again went out to her garden to take bitter survey of her failure. Looking at the pits and craters and tunnels disfiguring the face of the Mona Lisa, she once again decried her ignorance. Had she only understood more wholly the characters of burrowing creatures, had she only been better friends with Natural Science, how different the fate of the garden might have been!
The annihilation of the Mona Lisa garden had broader consequences than Mrs. Howland-Thorpe could have predicted. The moles and the voles did not honor legal property lines and refused to stay confined within the boundaries of Mrs. Howland-Thorpe’s property, particularly when she hired a new landscape architect, one Mickey Dunleavy, to wage war on the vermin with poisons and flooding and flames. The moles and the voles made mass exodus from Mrs. Howland-Thorpe’s property to the Israel of the property of all of her neighbors, save the property of Mrs. Fleming, whose entire property was moated with the deeply excavated Japonais sand garden, whose purpose, it was later learned by Newport society, was not just aesthetic and philosophical but also to discourage the infestation of vermin such as moles and voles.
When the neighbors found themselves at a loss for how to respond to this invasion of pests, they contacted the same renowned naturalist at Brown University whom Mrs. Howland-Thorpe’s man had contacted, who referred them to the same society of naturalists who had sold the moles and the voles to Mrs. Howland-Thorpe’s man, and who made passing reference to the purchase of 900 moles and voles just the week prior, which purchase was paid for by a cheque drawn on Mrs. Howland-Thorpe’s account.
The information quickly spread. Although no one openly accused Mrs. Howland-Thorpe of the attempted sabotage, at the next evening at Marble House, Mrs. Howland-Thorpe was seated twenty seats from Mrs. Vanderbilt, the last seat at the end of the table before dropping off entirely.
Mrs. Vanderbilt had declared the evening to be a “beach party.” Towards that end, she had had laid a great dune of sand that ran down the middle of the dining table from end to end. All the guests were given miniature spades and pails of silver and encouraged to dig in the sand, in which were buried diamonds, sapphires, and rubies. However, Mrs. Howland-Thorpe’s setting lacked the spade and pail. Whether this was but an oversight or a bald insult, she dared not bring attention upon the circumstance by calling for a spade and pail lest the slight become generally known. Thus, Mrs. Howland-Thorpe discreetly resorted to the employment of her soup spoon to dig in the sand with the other guests, though it profited her none as there seemed to be nothing in the sand all the way down at her end of the table but shells, and vile, hairy crab shells at that, and the spoon left grains of horrid sand in her soup when she later used it for that purpose.
Her only solace of the evening was that her immediate neighbors at the table were both men who were wholly occupied in their efforts to impress each other with tales of workmen in their employ lost in mining accidents due to fire-damp explosions, tunnel collapses, suffocation by gas, boiler explosions, hoisting cage falls, in-rush of ground water, and hoisting cage overwinds, so that she was allowed to bear her shame in silence.
Mrs. Howland-Thorpe vs. Mrs. Fleming, Battle Five
In Which An Auction, the Viciousness of Suffragettes, and Fate Conspire to Rescue Mrs. Howland-Thorpe’s Standing in Society.
Mrs. Howland-Thorpe Prevails.
After the beach party, Mrs. Howland-Thorpe’s anxiety at the precariousness of her position rose near to panic. She was quite sensible of the fate of women of society shunned by their equals. How does a woman with no friends fill her days? With husbands away tending to railways and mines and banks, no one to talk to but servants, nothing but lonely shelves of vases and mortally dull books to stare at for hours a day, no entertainments other than attending church, and nothing towards which to look forward but 40 or 50 more years of such existence, how should she make her time in this world bearable? She was not engaging in petty rivalry. She was fighting for her life.
Yet, light pierced into the darkness of the valley of Mrs. Howland-Thorpe’s fortunes with an auction of a rose of unusual qualities. It was a rose that could grow submerged in salt water rooted into the sea floor.
The rose was being offered by Sotheby’s as part of their annual lot of curiosities that appealed to the naturalist collector.
The rose was the result of generations of hybrids. It was not in truth a rose, but an altered form of an aquatic plant related to common eelgrass. The eelgrass family was but one of several forms of plants that had once been terrestrial flowering plants but that had migrated of their own accord to an aquatic existence and that now pollinated in the water. The sea-rose, as this item to be auctioned was called, was but a form of this eelgrass relation that had been coaxed by enterprising botanists at Harvard University to bud flowers larger and larger and of more vivid color until they resembled roses. The lot for auction included not only one healthy adult male plant and one female in each of eleven colors, but all the legal rights to make cuttings or spawn further plants.
When Mrs. Howland-Thorpe learned of the auction of the sea-rose, she knew that she must have it. It was her final prospect to regain her position in Newport society. Whatever the cost, she knew that she must win the auction.
When it became generally known that Mrs. Howland-Thorpe intended to travel to New York to bid on the rose, a great excitement filled the parlours of Newport. The ladies were all enchanted by the idea of a rose garden under the sea. They had also begun to pity Mrs. Howland-Thorpe as well, whose future in Newport society had once seemed so promising. Mrs. Howland-Thorpe, borne aloft by this renewed attention to her, which she had so sorely missed during the entirety of the past season, promised that she would win the sea-rose at auction and that by the next summer’s garden season, she would have planted a garden on the sea floor in the waters off of Newport and that she would hold a party for them all to descend in iron diving bells to view the garden for themselves.
However, Mrs. Fleming, true to her contrary nature, delivered a lecture during tea at her home inveighing against the sea-rose that no one wished to hear. Mrs. Fleming stated that she had read scientific treatises condemning the sea-rose as a dangerous parasite that would overpower the natural marine flora and would destroy the delicate natural systems of the seas they were planted in. The ladies resented being lured upon false pretense of tea and being subjected to a lecture. If they had wanted to be lectured to, they would have attended colleges. In this, Mrs. Fleming greatly overestimated her friends’ minds and underestimated the force with which she would have to pound and pound to make the least bit of learning or moral nourishment enter into them.
The week after Mrs. Fleming’s irritating oration, all supped at Marble House again. Mrs. Fleming found that that evening, she was seated eight seats away from Mrs. Vanderbilt at supper.
Mrs. Howland-Thorpe and her husband repaired to New York for the auction. However, Tiberius Howland-Thorpe was ultimately not in attendance at the auction with his wife to curb her bidding as was his custom. At the time of the auction, Mr. Howland-Thorpe lay in the hospital, convalescing from a round of fisticuffs he endured when, two days before, while walking home from the office of Howland-Thorpe Railways to the Howland-Thorpe townhouse on Fifth Avenue, he thought it a good idea to vilify and harangue a march of suffragettes, who, to his great astonishment, turned and beat him savagely. While lying in his hospital bed nursing his wounds, he penned a letter to his wife inveighing against the impetuosity of Woman and urging her to remain mistress of her emotions at the auction and to exercise the self-command of which he knew she was capable in her purchases, making reproaching reference to the ichthyosaurus skeleton that she had bought at auction two seasons ago that now lay piled in a trunk in the storage rooms behind the servants’ quarters at Newport, now that fossils were no longer the fashion.
At the auction, a number of desultory bidders bid against Mrs. Howland-Thorpe for several rounds but quickly dropped away as the price climbed higher. Only Mrs. Fleming continued to bid against Mrs. Howland-Thorpe. After the humiliating indifference with which her entreaty to the ladies of Newport society had been received, she could not but defend her principles and attempt to buy the rose for herself so that no one could plant it and spread it across the sea floor.
When the auction price surpassed ten times the opening bid, Mrs. Fleming was compelled ruefully to drop out of the bidding. Mrs. Howland-Thorpe won the auction, but not before needlessly bidding against her own highest bid four more rounds, driving the ultimate price far above that of the infant tyrannosaurus skull that had set records two seasons ago, simply to end the auction in a flourish of spite in Mrs. Fleming’s direction. Let them know, thought Mrs. Howland-Thorpe to herself, that Honoria Howland-Thorpe knows how to end a battle and end it with style!
When Mrs. Howland-Thorpe returned to Newport to the final supper of the season at Marble House, she returned in triumph. Mrs. Vanderbilt had declared that this supper would be a “riding party.” The guests were led to the ballroom. The floor had been covered in thick carpets of grass. At the center of the room was a split rail fence and posts flanking mangers. Tied to the posts was a live horse for each guest, shod with special rubber shoes. The guests were helped atop the horses by waiters dressed as scarlet-coated grooms and found the horses complexly caparisoned about the shoulders with a special fitted tray that bore plate and silver and glass. Rubber hoses led down to bottles of champagne in iced buckets tucked into saddlebags at either side. There was more clatter than Mrs. Vanderbilt would have liked, as the horses swayed from weakness due to having been fasted for four days so that they would not do at the party what every horse does in every parade.
At first, Mrs. Howland-Thorpe was consumed with bitter resentment to find that even after her victory in New York, she was not placed nearer to Mrs. Vanderbilt than half way along the fence. Instead, she found herself trapped in the center of a triangle of men including Mr. Howland-Thorpe who talked of nothing but the ingenious campaign of Howland-Thorpe Railways and other railway companies to advertise excursions to sport-hunters, who rode the trains and shot from the windows and atop the roofs not at the Plains Indians but at the herds of buffalo that the savages lived upon, leaving the carcasses to rot beside the tracks by the millions. They droned on about how the railways thus managed to reduce the herds in a few tidy years from nearly 60 million to less than 300 creatures in the wild, thereby starving off the Indians, ending their pernicious raiding parties, and silencing their endless claims of breach of treaty, all while charging passage fare to the men to take care of the railway’s nuisances, while Mrs. Howland-Thorpe seethed at the theft of her moment of glory.
However, she soon realized that the horse she was seated upon so far from Mrs. Vanderbilt was the only white horse save for Mrs. Vanderbilt’s own and that they two were separated from each other only to punctuate the tableaux more forcefully.
At one point in the evening, Mrs. Vanderbilt had her groom unhitch her horse and walk it across the room over to Mrs. Howland-Thorpe’s horse. Mrs. Vanderbilt gave Mrs. Howland-Thorpe a great pink rose and invited her to offer it to Mrs. Vanderbilt’s horse. Mrs. Howland-Thorpe did so. The horse accepted the rose and ate it whole for it had not been given anything to eat in four days.
Mrs. Howland-Thorpe’s heart soared at her triumph.
Mrs. Howland-Thorpe vs. Mrs. Fleming, Battle Six
In Which Mrs. Fleming Beseeches Mrs. Howland-Thorpe to Think of the Dolphins and Her Own Womanly Worth;
Mrs. Howland-Thorpe Forgets Her Breeding; Mrs. Fleming Forgets Her Breeding.
Mrs. Howland-Thorpe Prevails.
In the final days of the summer season, Mrs. Howland-Thorpe was greatly astonished to find that Mrs. Fleming came to call upon her several times at the Howland-Thorpe house. Mrs. Howland-Thorpe had her manservant inform Mrs. Fleming that Mrs. Howland-Thorpe was engaged and Mrs. Fleming left each time accomplishing nothing more than the leaving of her card for Mrs. Howland-Thorpe.
Mrs. Howland-Thorpe had always fancied herself a great walker. Yet, the heat of the summer kept her from taking her exercise until dusk. Thus, each afternoon, at sundown, Mrs. Howland-Thorpe took her daily constitutional along the path where her garden ended in the cliff walk overlooking Sheep Point Cove.
One afternoon, Mrs. Howland-Thorpe rounded the final copse of trees along the cliff walk dividing her property from the Flemings’ property to find to her consternation that Mrs. Fleming stood there in apparent attendance of her. Mrs. Fleming greeted her civilly and asked to join her on her promenade. Mrs. Howland-Thorpe felt all the perverseness of the presumption, yet so great was her surprise that policy took hold and she could think of nothing to do but dumbly assent.
Mrs. Fleming guided them to one of the promontories that overhung Sheep Point Cove. She asked Mrs. Howland-Thorpe to look to the sea. When nothing appeared for them to see, Mrs. Howland-Thorpe inquired as to the purpose of their vigil.
At that moment, motion began to stir the sea on the horizon. Little sprays appeared in a line heading towards the cove.
The line of plumes revealed itself to be a colony of dolphins, diving and spouting as they made their way into the cove.
“They come in each day at dusk,” said Mrs. Fleming. “They sup on the fish that live in this cove and that retreat here from deeper waters for the evening. The fish that the dolphins eat in turn feed on the smaller forms of fish that never leave the cove that in turn feed on the natural marine flora native to this cove and this cove alone. If you plant the sea-rose here, it shall choke the native flora, which shall in turn starve out the smaller fish, which shall in turn starve out the larger fish, which shall in turn starve out the colony of dolphins.”
Mrs. Howland-Thorpe coloured with incense. The manner of Mrs. Fleming’s lying in wait to commandeer and sermonize to Mrs. Howland-Thorpe demonstrated an appalling want of breeding and did nothing to recommend Mrs. Fleming’s suit. As there was for the very first time all season no one about them to hear their exchange, the lacing that had held back all that Mrs. Howland-Thorpe had wished to say to Mrs. Fleming began at last to pop open.
“I am profoundly stirred by the interest you take in the happiness of beasts,” said Mrs. Howland-Thorpe. “I wonder whether your powers of empathy extend so warmly to the concerns of your friends and neighbors.”
Mrs. Fleming seemed unsurprised at this glancing yet bald reproach. She replied, “I own that I am not proud of everything I have said or done this season. Let us be friends, Honoria. May I call you Honoria?”
“You most certainly may not!”
“I do beg your pardon. This has been a difficult season for all. New places, new friends, they are never easy alterations to make. Yet, let us lay down our quarrels and consider our battles drawn and our tallies equal.”
Drawn, thought Mrs. Howland-Thorpe to herself. She would not consider their battles drawn until this creature was driven out of Newport society.
“You should not have supposed it so easy and swift a business,” said Mrs. Howland-Thorpe, “to come in and take what others have built over so long a time.”
“I own that I was impudent,” said Mrs. Fleming. “I was new to this society and this country. The coldness of your welcome stung me and pricked my pride. Yet, I have abused my higher birth and my superior powers of learning and discourse to humiliate and make ridiculous in the eyes of all a woman whom I should have been honored to call a friend and neighbor.”
“I have most certainly not been made ridiculous in the eyes of all! You presume too much!”
“This is not progressing as I had hoped. Let us begin again. Why do women need to reduce each other so? Are our lives truly so vacant that we must fill them with quarrels and jealousies so that we have something to do? We should to the contrary be lifting each other up in sisterhood and cheering for each others’ triumphs. We should be applauding each other towards greater achievements than getting seated two seats from Mrs. Vanderbilt at supper at Marble House.”
“And you but seek the same! For all your learning and high birth and talk of tender concern for dumb beasts, you have done nothing since you arrived but seek the same!”
“I deserve that chastisement,” said Mrs. Fleming. “I have not spent my time here in meaningful endeavor. But there is so little of seriousness that women are suffered to do with their lives. I thought it would be different in this country. We should be urging each other towards useful works. Women can do Great things together.”
“And now that I propose to do a Great thing, a thing that has never been done, you plot to thwart me.”
“Your aim in planting the sea-rose is to do no greater a thing than fix your position in Newport society, heedless of the cost to innocent creatures.”
“Do not presume to tell me what mine aim is!”
“Your undertaking is loathsome, Honoria.”
“If you find it loathsome, then look away! But no. You will not look away. Because you wish to see it so well as anyone. You wish to see it and denounce it and tower over us in your virtue, when in truth you burn to see it so well as anyone!”
“Honoria, your Womanly Worth is firmer than Mrs. Vanderbilt can increase or reduce season to season. You need not conduct yourself like a mewling thing, whimpering to suck on anyone’s teat. It is beneath you. It is embarrassing to witness.”
“Such insolence!” Mrs. Howland-Thorpe gathered her skirts and turned to leave.
“See,” said Mrs. Fleming. “That is the problem with American Arrivistes. You may have all the money of Croesus, yet you shall never have an original thought in your heads, you shall never have true refinement.”
“Then get you back on the boat you came on and go back to your own country and see how very refined you shall look sitting on broken chairs and wearing decrepit gowns without Arriviste American money!”
“Do not make me to do this,” cried Mrs. Fleming to Mrs. Howland-Thorpe’s back. “I shall stop your garden, Honoria.”
“You may try!”
“I shall stop your garden in so stunning a fashion that you shall never dare try again to plant sea-roses or show your face in Newport society. And that is a promise.”
Mrs. Howland-Thorpe turned back towards Mrs. Fleming and cried, “You shall try and you shall fail and it shall be the cause of your own ruin, for if you dare to oppose my endeavor, I shall drown you in a tide of roses!”
With that, Mrs. Howland-Thorpe turned and continued her march back to her house.
Mrs. Howland-Thorpe vs. Mrs. Fleming, Battle Seven
In Which Mrs. Howland-Thorpe Invites All to Witness the Debut of Her Garden of Wonders Except for Mrs. Fleming.
Mrs. Fleming Prevails.
Mrs. Howland-Thorpe did not idle in beginning her work on the underwater garden. When the season at Newport ended and the families began to repair back to New York, Boston, and Philadelphia, Mrs. Howland-Thorpe stayed on.
She engaged the services of not only a new landscape architect, an enterprising young man named Grinnell Witherspoon who had apprenticed under Frederick Law Olmstead, but also those of theatre impresario David Belasco. Together, the trio drew the plans for a garden of wonders in the shallow waters of Sheep Point Cove.
Mrs. Howland-Thorpe leased a vast greenhouse in Newport. Throughout the winter, she divided and grew sweeping meadows of the sea-rose in great aquariums and vats that a force of attendants nursed through day and night.
As soon as weather broke the following spring, a small army of engineers and horticulturists was suited up to begin the planting of the garden.
The construction of the garden proceeded without delays or disappointments throughout the spring due to the lessons in Natural Science that Mrs. Howland-Thorpe had learned as the costly prizes wrested from her failures at her first two gardens of the past season.
From her first garden, she applied what she learned of the Natural Science of color and light. The sea-floor was as dim as dusk. In such feeble light the most fashionable colors of flower, pink, white, and red, were rendered dull and indistinguishable. Mrs. Howland-Thorpe thus chose the violets, oranges, and lime greens that she had been so scorned for using in her Oriental-Italianate garden, for those colors when viewed in the meager light of the sea-floor were turned into lilac and salmon and pineapple. Mrs. Howland-Thorpe thus had a palette of soft pastels to work in.
From her second garden, she applied what she learned of burrowing creatures. The greatest puzzle posed by the sea-roses was how to anchor them in the loose soil of the sea-floor until they took root. She discovered that burrowing creatures would nest most deeply into the earth when they were threatened or injured. Thus, she purchased thousands upon thousands of small crabs from fisheries throughout the Narragansett. She had her team of gardeners drill a hole into each crab, and insert a root of a sea-rose into the creature’s living flesh. When the crab was released upon the sea-floor, it would seek to hide itself because of its injury. The crab would burrow deeply into the sea-floor and anchor itself there, tugging down the root of the sea-rose with it. There, it would die and its flesh would serve to nourish the sea-rose as the roots took hold.
Thus did they plant a dreamland on the sea floor with sea-roses along twelve-foot stems in a likeness of Neuschwanstein Castle that waved with the tide, surrounded by a labyrinth of sea-rose hedges. There were great topiaries of thickly bunched sea-rose bushes pruned in the shape of mer-maidens. There were mountains in miniature made of mounds of sea-roses divided by rivers of sea-roses in contrasting colors. Great statues encrusted with sea-roses depicted battles between Poseidon and the Scylla and other horrors of the deep. Howland-Thorpe Railways constructed rails in miniature that curled through the underwater garden and over the peaks and down the valleys of the landscape of the sea floor. A diving bell was modified with wheels to ride the rails. It seated two and could be propelled by the motion of a sole gentleman’s pedaling or drawn along by pulley.
When the summer season arrived, Newport was almost wild with excitement at the unveiling of the garden. All of Newport society was invited to attend its debut and the important newspapers all sent men to write about and take daguerreotypes of the garden.
At the debut, Mrs. Howland-Thorpe, with her husband Tiberius at her side, stood at the prow of a ship filled with all the entourage. She and Mrs. Vanderbilt would be the first to descend in the diving bell down to view the garden. Mrs. Howland-Thorpe’s pride and satisfaction at this moment were beyond expression.
Mrs. Howland-Thorpe spoke a dedication of the garden to the honor of Mrs. Vanderbilt, but she deemed herself no great orator so the dedication was of necessity brief. She ended the dedication by turning to Mrs. Vanderbilt and saying, “And may the fecundity of this garden ever be indication of the honor that the Vanderbilts bring to Newport society.”
When she was done with the dedication and as Mrs. Vanderbilt prepared to be assisted from the ship to the buoyant platform bobbing in the middle of the sea that contained the diving bell and the beginnings of the rails where they descended down, a great discharge emanated from the water.
The force of the blow rocked the ship and a great cry went up as ladies clutched the arms of their husbands to keep from being tossed off the ship and into the sea.
First came the bubbles, great belches of bubbles that blossomed up and churned the sea about the ship into foam.
Pandemonium ensued as the ship lurched from side to side in the battering waters. Ladies slid about the deck amid great confusion and put up a horrible cry.
Then came the fish, great expanses of dead fish, floating on their sides and flashing silver in the sun.
Men bravely commanded, “Women and children first!” while racing about searching for the lifeboats, of which there were none, since this was but a modest vessel intended for pleasure sailing near shore.
Then came the carcass of a dolphin, with her calf circling about her, the calf’s dorsal fin torn nearly off and grievously flapping.
When the waters had calmed sufficiently, the company began to accept that they would not go down to watery graves this day like sailors lost at sea, for they were only some hundreds of feet from shore, and never in any danger, although many of the women continued to clasp hands while softly singing “Nearer My God to Thee.”
At last came the sea-roses. They floated up in blankets of green and orange and violet until they carpeted the surface of the sea.
The general understanding arose that some combustible material had created an explosion in the underwater garden.
Mrs. Howland-Thorpe and her husband were helped onto the buoyant platform beside the ship and into the diving bell to view what had become of the garden. The bell descended down the rails into the sea.
The deck of the ship was alive with speculation until the clarion at the top of the pulley sounded, indicating that the passengers were ready to be retrieved.
The pulley was cranked to draw the diving bell back up along the rails and onto the platform and the passengers were disgorged. All of Newport society saw Mrs. Howland-Thorpe weeping quietly onto her husband’s shoulder. She lifted her kerchief from her face to shake her fist and cry “Saboteuse!”
Mr. Howland-Thorpe to his great discredit could not stifle a grin spreading over his face. Mrs. Howland-Thorpe hissed in his ear, “What are you beaming at!”
Mr. Howland-Thorpe replied, “Forgive me, Honoria. But what man does not enjoy watching a great public fight between two women trying to scratch out each other’s eyes? Well, you have always had a talent for wasting my money, but at least this time, I got some entertainment of it.”
Mrs. Vanderbilt gazed at the appalling spectacle and then turned away from Mrs. Howland-Thorpe to her own party and asked aloud if they were done and when they would be returning to shore.
As Mrs. Vanderbilt led her party to the cabins below, Mrs. Howland-Thorpe cried, “She has not defeated me! I shall prevail! I shall cover the globe in roses! I shall fill the seas with roses until they choke!”
Mrs. Howland-Thorpe vs. Mrs. Fleming, Battle Finale
In Which Mrs. Fleming’s Treachery Unwittingly Births the Ladies’ Aquatic Gardening Society and Prompts the Great Changing.
Mrs. Howland-Thorpe Prevails.
It could not be known in the year following Mrs. Fleming’s sabotage of Mrs. Howland-Thorpe’s garden how profoundly the events that occurred in the waters of Sheep Point Cove would alter the whole of the world. It would still be eight years before the last lobster supper was auctioned by Sotheby’s. There would still be sea otters for fifteen more years, and even today, dolphins are still reported to be sighted far out at sea every few years. Even sea-horses, which were singular creatures that had the head of a horse and the tail of a dragon, and were as fragile as paper lanterns and as small as sparrows, would still endure for six more years.
In the year following the exploding of the underwater garden, two lawsuits were filed, Honoria Orrington Howland-Thorpe vs. Cecilia Contarini Fleming in New York and Cecilia Contarini Fleming vs. Honoria Orrington Howland-Thorpe in Rhode Island.
In the wake of the filing of these lawsuits, Mrs. Fleming appeared to withdraw from Newport Society. However, Mrs. Howland-Thorpe believed that she continued to feel Mrs. Fleming’s presence. In the course of marshalling evidence for the lawsuits, Mrs. Howland-Thorpe attempted to investigate the ruins of the underwater garden. The first two times she planned to enter the waters of Sheep Point Cove to do so, Mrs. Howland-Thorpe and her lawyers arrived to find the bay churned with fish offal and blood, and the water being sliced by circling fins.
Further, there were mysterious incendiary bottles of alcohol threaded with fuses thrown through the windows of Mrs. Howland-Thorpe’s greenhouse six times that failed to wreak damage only because they dropped into vats of water or rolled into puddles.
When she was at last able to reach the ruins of the combusted garden safely, Mrs. Howland-Thorpe discovered within the radius of the blast a few stubborn, surviving sea-roses that had tolerated the crush of the explosion. Further, they seemed to have multiplied wildly in mere weeks now that their feebler nest-mates had been eliminated, for they were surrounded by newlings bearing their resemblances, budding from the sea floor in rings about them. She unearthed them and brought them back to her greenhouse to study and cultivate.
She learned that in addition to their hale and fertile nature, they did not require anchoring with crabs to root into the soil. They could be plopped into the water and they would sink and root themselves.
Thus did Mrs. Fleming’s exploding of the underwater garden identify for Mrs. Howland-Thorpe a new, formerly unappreciated, and truly heroic strain of sea-rose.
In response to this discovery, Mrs. Howland-Thorpe proceeded to form the Ladies’ Aquatic Gardening Society, the mission of which was to cultivate a race of New Sea-Roses from these Adams and Eves to form her next garden, the location of which would be no less than the entire globe. The Society embarked on a campaign to elicit contributions to hire ships to drop the self-propagating, self-anchoring New Sea-Rose into the waters along all the major shores of the world to bring Beauty to even its most benighted of spots.
It could not be known at that time that the New Sea-Rose had other uncommon properties.
It could not be known that its talent for replication would rival that of the most promiscuous and monstrous of funguses.
It could not be known that not only could the New Sea-Rose eat most anything that came near it through its roots and its very petals, nothing would eat it in turn, for in addition to being hardy, fecund, and ravenous, it was poisonous.
It could not be known that the New Sea-Rose could attach itself to any surface, sandy or rocky, open or forested, or that it could even adhere to ships and slow moving creatures such as whales. It would burrow its roots into them and cover their undersides in blooms until the tendrils destroyed their hosts and left them eaten through with tunnels like sponges in which the flora’s new brood would spawn and from which they would burst to further cover the sea-floor.
Thus did Mrs. Howland-Thorpe proceed to open her first party of the following summer season in ignorance of the historic nature of what she would do that day. Mrs. Howland-Thorpe had quietly announced a party to introduce the New Sea-Rose to Newport Society and to debut the plans of the Ladies’ Aquatic Gardening Society to gift the rest of the world with the New Sea-Rose. A crop of New Sea-Roses was to be unveiled in aquariums in Mrs. Howland-Thorpe’s garden, and then taken by the party and dropped into the waters of Sheep Point Cove.
Mrs. Howland-Thorpe had hired a private force of men at arms to patrol and guard Sheep Point Cove in the week leading up to the party. No real mischief arose, although the men did make chase after cloaked visitors three of the seven nights.
On the morning of the party, Mrs. Howland-Thorpe found, to her warm pleasure, that guests began arriving an hour early. It appeared that her campaign had managed to recapture the imaginations of those denied a view of the underwater garden last season. There were also scholarly men learned in the Natural Sciences whom she had befriended while promoting the Society’s work.
Mrs. Howland-Thorpe had of course invited Mrs. Vanderbilt to the party. Mrs. Vanderbilt had not replied to the invitation with an acceptance or apologies.
Good sense advised that it was not prudent to commence a party without waiting to see if Mrs. Vanderbilt might attend. Yet, Mrs. Howland-Thorpe’s friends and colleagues had been gathered waiting here in the salon for over an hour.
They were waiting to watch her will a brave new vision into being.
Her will. Her vision. Her moment.
She did not wait to see whether Mrs. Vanderbilt would attend. She opened the doors leading out to her garden. She welcomed her guests to march with her and descend upon the sea.