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23. 

 

    Rebecca Montague kept secrets. On the occasion of the baptism of her son Nathaniel, her third child, she received, for the third time, an envelope from Henry Bevens containing five hundred dollars in cash. A brief letter, similar to the previous two, was enclosed explaining that the gift was intended to help defray the costs of his future education. As before, she wrote a short note of gratitude in return. But she never informed Frank about these gifts, not in this instance, nor in any of the two that preceded it.

    Why she chose to keep the fact of these gifts secret was not immediately obvious. It was true that the amounts were substantial; but that in itself was not the reason for secrecy. After all, Henry Bevens was Frank's partner and one of his closest friends. But Rebecca had another secret, a far deeper secret, one that she resolved would never be revealed to anyone, least of all to her husband.

    In the past, she assumed that Bevens held her entire family in equal affection; the fact that the gifts had been forwarded directly to her was not explained, in her view,  by Bevens according her special status. Rebecca was a perceptive woman, and she saw beneath his brilliant mind and formal, business like manner a delicate sensitivity, a  quality rarely encountered in the men she had known. But Rebecca also realized that sensitive men were often embarrassed by the depth of their feelings and chose to disguise them beneath an artificial veneer, less their fellows find them unmanly, even to the point of ridicule. Those customs may have been deplorable, but they were the prevailing conventions of the day.

    So Bevens had chosen to share the warmth of his feelings for her family with her only; for, as a woman, she would understand them more easily than Frank. That was her original conjecture at least, but it was also one that she could no longer sustain. For Rebecca had come to accept the truth that Bevens was in love with her; indeed, he had probably fallen in love with her on the occasion of their first meeting five years before.

    Now, Rebecca was a beautiful woman and a vain one as well. She was quite aware that men found her attractive, and when she married Frank Montague a legion of broken hearted suitors were left behind. As a young woman, she may have been innocent in her experiences, but she knew enough to recognize when a man had become infatuated with her.

    It was not anything that Bevens had said to her, for he was always the epitome of a proper gentleman; and it was not the way he looked at her, either, for he rarely made eye contact with anyone. And on those infrequent occasions when Rebecca, on the periphery of her vision, caught Bevens stealing a furtive glance in her direction, he would hastily avert his eyes, grow red with embarrassment, and try to conceal his actions with animated gestures and loud conversation with others close by.

    No, it was none of these that revealed his feelings for her, not definitively in any case. It was rather the frequency of their encounters. There were periods of time when he seemed to be everywhere she turned as though he tried to anticipate her movements so that they might run into each other, accidentally as it were. Then, he would disappear from her view for equally long periods as though purposefully trying to avoid her. As he most certainly was trying to do, in her opinion; for fearing disclosure by popping up constantly in her vicinity, he would adopt the opposite behavior to lessen the impression of the former.

    These were her conclusions, at any rate, and whether they were accurate would never be tested, she decided, for Bevens would always remain an admirer from afar. And she was willing to accept that state of affairs. Henry Bevens was a lovely man, a close friend, and a confidant when needed. She held him in great affection, but she was not in love with him, either. Only one man had ever won her heart, and he continued to hold it. She could have shared her suspicions with Frank, but to what end? It was better, far better, that Bevens's feelings for her remain secret, both for his sake and for the sake of their friendship.

    So Rebecca Montague was a woman who kept secrets, but she kept other secrets  besides those about silent admirers. She also kept secrets about herself, and often kept them from herself. As a young girl, she had been flirtatious with the boys she met, particularly so with Frank whom she planned to ensnare from the very beginning. But after their wedding, she decided that her girlish ways would have to change. It was one thing to flirt with her husband; there were advantages to be gained. It was quite another thing to appear flirtatious with other men however harmless and innocent her intentions: reputations could be damaged and uninvited advances might inadvertently be summoned forth. So she chose to repress her natural inclinations in social surroundings for fear they might be taken in the wrong way. If she needed to indulge her ebullient personality, she could indulge it with her husband. Who was she, really?

 

    Well, Rebecca began as the only child of a marriage notable only for the discrepancy in ages between her parents. If that were the only characteristic to distinguish her from her schoolmates, she might have entered adulthood in a predictable way. Fate, however, would prefer to cast its own designs.

    Her childhood resembled that of many of her childhood friends until her mother Deborah Lambert died suddenly of acute meningitis, a relatively rare disease at the time, in Pittsburgh in 1842. Rebecca, only six years old at her mother's death, was left in the care of her father Nathaniel, a successful businessman who owned four sawmills on the Allegheny River and a chain of lumberyards spread across Pennsylvania.

    Nathaniel was nearly twenty-five years older than his wife when they married, and although he had been married once before, he had no previous experience as a parent. In fact, his first wife deserted him to become an entertainer in New York City, the messy details of the divorce left for him to accomplish alone. He spent the next twenty years completely absorbed in his business, rarely venturing out for the theater or the lively parties arranged by his friends. He led a solitary, ascetic life.

    At a suggestion of one of his business associates, Nathaniel decided to take on a housekeeper. His years as a bachelor had served only to worsen his meager homemaking skills: his eating habits were haphazard and his living quarters were in constant disarray.

    He interviewed a score of candidates until he came upon a young woman, twenty years old, a recent immigrant from Paris, France, named Deborah Lubois. Her background was sketchy; she came from a poverty stricken family in North Africa and apparently had also spent a little time in prison for theft. But she came with satisfactory references from her former employer, a furniture manufacturer in Philadelphia, and her compensation requirements were reasonable. For a person with such a cautious nature, Nathaniel was taking an unusual risk hiring a young woman with a dubious history, someone who had resided in this country for only a short while. But a good recommendation from her last position and the blurry outlines of her past were very much besides the point. She was strikingly beautiful, and once Nathaniel set eyes upon her, he realized just how lonely he had been and how empty his life had become.

    In truth, Deborah was a conscientious domestic worker and kept an immaculate house for the enamored Nathaniel, although she performed her duties for only a short time; her employer proposed and they married several months after her arrival. Following the wedding, an abbreviated event attended by a few friends and relatives, the happy couple vacationed in Niagara Falls, and upon their return to Pittsburgh, Deborah learned that she was pregnant.

    There was a spray of malicious rumors that wounded both of them irreparably. Neighbors whispered that Nathaniel was not the expectant father; that Deborah was having an illicit liaison with one of his assistants; that she had been impregnated by her former employer before she was even hired.

    While it might be reasonable to question the sincerity of Deborah's feelings for a man twenty-five years her senior, who could offer a degree of wealth and comfort to bridge that discrepancy but precious little else, there could be little doubt that the child Rebecca was his. She inherited her mother's beauty, her fine features, and her translucent glowing complexion, but she also bore her father's penetrating grey-colored eyes, his intellect, and his amber colored hair.

    After Deborah's funeral, Nathaniel's friends advised him to remarry; his child needed a mother to guide her during the turbulent years ahead. But he was done with companionship during the foreseeable future; he would provide all parenting that Rebecca needed. And to his credit, he succeeded more often than not, though at times his concept of a parent's responsibilities were a welter of contradictions; on some occasions he seemed to be the model of an enlightened father; on others, he appeared to be completely ignorant about the upbringing of children.

    To say that Nathaniel was an over indulgent parent, that he catered to Rebecca's every whim, was accurate but misleading. For every privilege granted, a restriction was levied; for every luxury, a deprivation. She was more intelligent than her young contemporaries and more gifted, artistically and otherwise. She spent her afternoons immersed in classics and poetry. She became an accomplished pianist and a promising author. She rose to the top of her classes in painting and ballet. But the expectations Nathaniel held for his only child were severely limited as if he were trying to counter balance the unlimited potential she demonstrated in everything she undertook. And perhaps, in his defense, the depth of her mind frightened him a little. Rebecca should prepare herself for a suitable marriage, he both counseled and decreed, not an advanced education and a professional career. The emancipation of women lay many years ahead.

    As Rebecca grew into adulthood, a procession of young men began to vie for her favors, but none of them survived the demanding standards of Nathaniel Lambert; none, that is, until Frank Montague entered her life, a man who cared little for anyone's approbation. By this point, Rebecca had learned painfully what her friends had assimilated effortlessly: men preferred that their women exhibit little intelligence, that they be frivolous and silly, that their aspirations begin and end with fashion, marriage, and childbirth.

    And like her childhood friends, Rebecca conformed to those standards, for what choice had she really. Rather than confine herself to a life of misery and loneliness, she chose to conceal her true nature and appear to Frank and the rest of the world as the person she assumed they expected: a beautiful, superficial creature who clothed herself in the latest fashions, selected the finest bone China, but held no opinions about anything remotely significant. And she conducted herself accordingly, regardless of the truth she elected to hide from the world and even from herself.   

    But Frank knew better. When a subtle breeze parted the lace curtains, he saw what Cameron and Bevens could never imagine beyond their longing and admiration. He saw the brilliance, determination, and fire within the woman he married. And he loved her, his Rebecca, more for it than less.

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January 2012

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