Wednesday, July 4, 2012
“Millie darling. Please get a hold of yourself. Prudence, it can't be you. We buried you six months ago.” Leland Harvey said as he was trying to keep his wife upright.
“I'm not Prudence, you fool. Everyone knows I am beautiful whereas she is mildly pretty. What do you mean you buried her? Why would you do a thing like that?”
“Because she was dead. What other reason could there possibly be?” Millie said as she was collecting herself after the shock of seeing Prudence's face looking back at her. “Who, may I ask, are you?”
“Oh for heaven sake. Where is Neville? I must get to the bottom of this. How did my dear cousin die? I'm sure Neville had something to do with it.”
“Neville doesn't live here. He has a home by the lake. He is there with his daughters and son. They are preparing for a wedding.”
“I thought Prudence only had two daughters. Not that it matters. She wasn't much of a mother to them anyway.”
“Who are you and what business do you have with my brother?”
“So you are the sister-in-law. I don't think Prudence ever spoke of you.”
“I'm not surprised. I only spoke of her when I was forced into it. Now suppose you start by telling me your name.”
“I am Lavinia Carstairs. Widow of the late Rutherford D. Carstairs. I trust you have heard of him. He was from royalty of course.”
“Of course. What may I help you with Mrs. Carstairs? We were about to leave the house.”
“Oh yes, the wedding. Just tell me where I can find Neville's little home and I'll be on my way.”
“Not on your life, lady. You are not going to upset my brother on his wedding day. I would suggest you take yourself and your royal derriere back to wherever it is you came from.”
“I have come a long way and I will not leave until I see Neville. You tell him to meet me at that pub I saw down the street. If he knows what's good for him he will be there in 30 minutes.”
Lavinia was out the door and into a carriage. “Hurry it up driver, I'm thirsty.”
“I wonder what that woman is up to. I never heard that Prudence had an identical cousin. I can't believe there were two of them. I'm not going to let it bother me. Let's hurry Leland. I want to get the cake in the carriage and on to Neville's house.”
The Merryweather house was full of hustle and bustle. Neville couldn't believe he and Helene would finally be husband and wife. Everything was going along smoothly, it was a beautiful late summer day. The three tiered cake had arrived safely along with Millie and Leland. Nothing could go wrong.
“Neville,” said Millie, “we had a visitor today. She says her name is Lavinia Carstairs. She hadn't heard of Prudence's death but I must admit she didn't seem disturbed by it. She looks exactly like Prudence. I almost fainted when I opened the door.”
“What could she possibly want? I haven't seen that woman in years She and Prudence had a falling out. I have no idea what the reason was but I can't say I ever missed her.”
“She insisted you meet her at O'Sullivan's and stormed out. I told her I wasn't going to disturb you on your wedding day. I refused to tell her where you live.”
“I suppose she could find out very easily. Maybe I should take a ride over there. She probably needs money. I think that is the only reason she ever came around to see Prudence.”
“Do you want Leland to go with you? I'm sure he wouldn't mind.”
“No, I'll be fine I am accustomed to dealing with women who have been drinking. I'm an expert at it thanks to Prudence.”
“Be careful Neville.”
Millie had an uneasy feeling. Leland came up beside her. “He's gone to see her, I assume?”
“Yes, he was afraid she might come here and interrupt the wedding.”
Neville walked into the pub. He spotted Lavinia. It sent chills down his spine. He'd forgotten how much she looked like Prudence.
Without any pleasantries, he said, “What did you want to see me about Lavinia? Spit it out, I'm in a hurry.”
“Neville darling. Don't you have a kiss for your wife's cousin?”
“No. Tell me what you want or I'll leave right now.”
“Neville, you are so ill-mannered. Tell me dear, how are you spending your wife's money these days? Buying little trinkets for her replacement?”
“You have two seconds Lavinia.”
“Alright. I want Prudence's money. It is rightfully mine. Her father cheated my father out of the family fortune.”
“There is nothing I can do about that. The money is in a trust fund for our daughters. It will stay there until they are 25 years old. You will need to consult an attorney if you want to contest Prudence's will. I'm leaving. Our business is completed.”
“That's what you think. I need money now. I'm not going through any lawyers. I went to see Prudence yesterday to tell her it was time to pay up and now I find out she is dead. Neville darling, I was always able to get money out of your dear wife. I'm surprised you didn't notice her funds have been dwindling through the years. You see, I have been blackmailing her and now I will blackmail you.”
“What in the devil are you talking about? Blackmail? You must be insane.”
“Don't speak to me that way or I may double my demands. I have the feeling you are much wealthier than you will admit.”
“I'm leaving Lavinia,” Neville stood up to leave.
“Would you like me to tell your precious daughter who her father really is?”
Neville stopped in his tracks. “Now, I know you are insane.”
“But you are wondering which one, aren't you.”
“Melinda and Melissa are my daughters. I don't know what your game is but I do believe what you are attempting to do is illegal.”
“Have you guessed yet? One of those girls doesn't look like you at all. Am I right?”
Neville's head was swimming. He had to admit Melinda's hair was darker than anyone in the family. Melissa had brown eyes. Prudence had blue eyes and his were green. I've got to get out of here and think.
“I'm leaving Lavinia. Get yourself a lawyer and sue me.”
“You never met my late husband Rutherford did you. His daughter is the spitting image of him in his younger days.”
Neville was shaking from anger and fear. He didn't care if Prudence was unfaithful to him but he did care if one of his precious girls was not his own flesh and blood. How would he tell them? He rode back to the house. The guests had all arrived and were sitting in the their seats waiting for the ceremony to start. He wondered why he didn't go along with Helene's wishes to keep the wedding small.
This had started out to be a perfect day and now Prudence was ruining it from the grave. One look at him and Helene knew things had not gone well at the pub. Millie told her about the visitor and who she was.
“Neville we can call this off. I know you are upset about something.”
“Oh please, Helene. I need you now more than ever. Lavinia was blackmailing Prudence all these years. She said I am not the father of one of my daughters. How can that be possible? I love them both so much. I know I'm going to have to tell them but I don't know how to do it. Wouldn't it be ironic if I gained a son this year but lost a daughter?”
“You are not going to lose a daughter Neville. Those girls adore you. Let's not let Prudence or her cousin ruin our day. Go stand by Vicar Will and wait for me to come down the aisle to you.”
He did what Helene said.
His daughters walked down the aisle between the sets of chairs, first his youngest daughter, Melissa. He could see her playing with her dolls, jumping from her swing into his arms. Next came Melinda. She was always a feisty one. He remembered how determined she was to walk when she was only 10 months old. She kept falling but would get up and try again. To think he almost lost her when he was being stubborn about her seeing Michael. Both of the girls were his daughters. Being a parent meant much more than just having the same blood running through a child's veins.
Neville was able to forget his trouble for just a few minutes when he saw his bride. She was a vision in a pale blue chiffon gown. She gave him a smile and his heart beat faster in his chest. The love of his life would finally be his wife.
The ceremony was over quickly. The reception was in full swing when Neville looked up and saw an obviously inebriated Lavinia walking toward him.
“What about it big boy. You gonna pay up or do I spill the beans? Pretty little fillies you got there. They don't look too much like you Neville. Maybe you aren't anybody's father.”
James and Leland both stood up and took hold of Lavinia's arms. “Let's go sleep this off, ma'am.”
“Let go of me. I am Mrs. Rutherford D. Carstairs the Duchess of Elderberry wine or something like that.” Lavinia started to laugh at her joke.
The men carried her to the carriage she came in on. Leland handed the driver a few dollars and told him to drive her to Greensboro if he had to but get her out of here.
The party continued in spite of the interruption.
After the last guest left, Neville told his children he wanted to see them in the parlor. He had something to discuss with them. Millie, James and Michael, you should be there too.
“What's wrong father?” said Melinda. “Did Cousin Lavinia upset you? You know she and mother never got along. I think they were jealous of one another.”
“I don't know how I'm going to tell you this girls. First of all I want you to know I love both of you very much. Nothing will ever change that. Lavinia told me today that your mother had an affair with Lavinia's husband Rutherford and that he is the father of one of you.”
“Father, you didn't believe her, did you? Mother told us all about that many years ago. Lavinia made her angry and Mother told her she had slept with Rutherford and that she was carrying his child. It wasn't true. Mother had her faults but she also had good taste. Did you ever see Rutherford Carstairs?”
“No but why would your mother tell you something like that.”
“It was before she began drinking so heavily. We were talking about the funniest thing that ever happened to us. Mother said she told Lavinia the story to make her angry and she succeeded. Lavinia was so mad at Mother she started to blackmail her. Mother never let on that it wasn't true because she felt guilty that Grandfather swindled his brother out of the family fortune. Every time Lavinia came by and threatened to tell you, she gave her more money. It eased her conscience somewhat.”
“I still don't know why she would tell her young daughters she'd made up sleeping with someone and one of you belonged to this Rutherford character.”
“You do remember Mother, don't you? She was a spoiled rich girl who never did grow up. Melissa and I were the adults in that relationship and we knew it.”
“Melissa tell Father what Mr. Carstairs looked like.”
Melissa laughed. “He had a beak for a nose. His hair was as red as a carrot. The poor man had no chin at all. Mother said Lavinia married him because he told her he was a Duke. She later found out he was from New Jersey. Look at us father, do you see any resemblance to a man with a beak nose, no chin and orange hair?”
He glanced over at Millie. Her hair was mostly gray but he could see the same shade of brown that Melinda had. She also had brown eyes, the same color as Melissa.
“I've been a fool. I don't know why I believed that woman but I wouldn't put anything past Prudence.”
“Mother had her faults but she was faithful to you most of the time you were married. Melissa and I were privy to every thought she ever had. I hate to say it but she didn't deserve your loyalty all these months. Now go enjoy the company of your bride and stop worrying about us. If you ever doubt we are your daughters again just look at us. We both look like our father and that is definitely you.”
“Come on Mr. Merryweather, come enjoy Mrs. Merryweather's company,” Helene said with a smile.
The next morning at a respectable 10:00, Lavinia Carstairs knocked on the Merryweather front door. She was greeted by the whole family plus a few she couldn't identify.
Neville invited her into the parlor. “Lavinia, this is the end of the line for you. I am giving you this envelope with enough cash for you to find a place to live and keep you going for a month or two. There will be no more money coming your way from this household. I think you know your husband couldn't be the father of my either of my daughters. You attempted to blackmail me and the law does not look too kindly on that endeavor. We wish you luck in the future but we will not be a part of your life. I would encourage you to spend some of that money learning a trade. I think you will find it is very therapeutic to pay your own way in this world. We bid you farewell Lavinia.”
Lavinia walked out of the house. What a fool Prudence was. If she had only worked at her marriage she could have been a happy woman. She had a wonderful husband and two lovely daughters. She didn't deserve any of them. What shall I do now? I'm not getting any younger and I don't have any prospects. Maybe I should think about getting a job. I know it won't be in this town though. Lavinia rode the train west. She applied for a job as a sales clerk in a department store. She was one of the few women hired. She was so popular with the customers, she was promoted to department head. The president of the company took notice of this attractive woman. He was a widower with grown children. Lavinia knew a good thing when she saw him. It didn't take long before they were married. Instead of giving up her job with the company, she worked along side her husband. She had finally found happiness in her life.
Two years later Neville opened his mail. There was a letter from Lavinia.
Dear Cousin Neville,
I know you told me not to contact you again. I have debated whether or not to write to you. The truth is, I owe you a debt of gratitude. You suggested I find a job. Because you promised you would not support me any longer I did just that. I found a wonderful man that I am happy to be sharing my life with. Yes, he is rich and powerful, I guess I couldn't settle for anything less. However, I am still working and have my very own money to spend. It is a good feeling. I owe you my new life Neville and I wanted you to know how grateful I am to you for forcing me to see that I could become a person I truly like. Just so you don't think I have changed completely, I will remind you that I am much prettier than Prudence ever was.