The Prologue: Gilded Death

The scene down Thames Street in Newport's downtown shopping area around the Brick Market, once the center of the colonial city

The scene down Thames Street in Newport’s downtown shopping area around the Brick Market, once the center of the colonial city

Hugh Dockings was dead. That this was true, no person in the elegant crowded ballroom who had heard the last gasp of life expel from his shaking body could doubt. A few of the guests had been close enough to see his startled face, that first stunned expression which was rapidly overtaken by the recognition that something was terribly wrong. Then the look of final panic when Dockings’s whole being realized the useless fight he was making to forestall the inevitable..

What were his last thoughts? Surely his entire concentration was on survival, not the flashing of the fifty-five years of his life before him, nor the fear for what hellish place would be his in after-death.

He must have heard the music stop. The interruption was triggered not by Hugh Dockings’s falling, for that was out of the sight of the string quartet, but by the sound of the woman screaming. The music’s amiable melody was sharp in its stop, right in the middle of a Mozart trill.

The Cliff Walk as it passes The Breakers, the Vanderbilt estate, with a view of the Atlantic Ocean and the rocky coastline.

The Cliff Walk as it passes The Breakers, the Vanderbilt estate, with a view of the Atlantic Ocean and the rocky coastline.

High above the startled guests, smoky rays from the June sun continued down through the room’s towering Gothic windows of ancient stained glass which traced its lineage back to the thirteenth century in France. The huge ballroom was one of Newport, Rhode Island’s finest architectural wonders. It was a refined setting with walls of French silk damask set in panels outlined in carved oak and ceilings dotted with brilliant chandeliers in the curling style of the French Renaissance.

At the sound of the scream, waiters held their heavy silver trays laden with champagne glasses and wine goblets suspended in mid-air. Waitresses at the overflowing buffet table stared in astonishment. Conversations, some even clever from the effect of the expensive stimulants, ceased. The perfect atmosphere, designed only to celebrate the next day’s wedding ceremony, had been shattered like the crystal goblet which had dropped from Hugh Dockings’s hand.

Only one strident, shouting voice was heard over the paralyzed quiet.

“Hugh, Hugh, what’s wrong with you? Hugh! Get up. Can’t anybody help him? Hugh! Get up.” The piercing sound made by the tall, black-haired woman’s words was unpleasant to hear.

Inside the picturesque grounds of the Newport Casino, now home to the International Tennis Hall of Fame, on Bellevue Avenue. The statue depicts English tennis great, Fred Perry.

Inside the picturesque grounds of the Newport Casino, now home to the International Tennis Hall of Fame, on Bellevue Avenue. The statue depicts English tennis great, Fred Perry.

Claude Revel, the gathering’s host, stepped into the scene. He was barely medium in height, with the outline of a paunch beginning around his waist. Despite his approaching sixtieth birthday, there were no discernable traces of greying among the shiny black hair which trimmed his round balding head.

“Imogen, be quiet,” he said to his sister in his deep, rich voice. “You’re not helping.” He grasped her long arm with a firm hold and looked around the hushed gathering for his wife.

Standing close by, Pamela Revel had been watching the frightened face of her sister-in-law Imogen as her fiancé Hugh Dockings fell stricken in front of her. There would be no wedding tomorrow. Inside her chest Pamela felt a sense of pleasure involuntarily well up, and she set her jaw. It wouldn’t do to let her delicate face, artfully made up to cloak the effects of time on her fading beauty, give away her feelings.