MISSING: Rhoda, 1899

Rhoda Evanston is the first Poplars girl to be officially recorded as Missing — she vanished during the grand Fin De Siècle ball held at the School on December 31st, 1899.  Like Eudora and Thea, her disappearance was reported with much excitement by the press.  Foolish, flighty Rhoda, so the official story goes, was engaged in a secret correspondence with a dashing young second lieutenant in the 4th Cavalry, by the name of ‘Jonathan’.  The young lovers used the festivities as cover for their plans, sneaking off into the night long before the clock struck open a new century.  A full forty-eight hours elapsed before anyone in the Evanston household realized Rhoda was indeed Missing, and not recuperating at the home of either of her closest friends, Colette Thorpe or Darsie Beaumont.  When confronted, Colette and Darsie admitted what they knew of Rhoda’s secret affair, and letters from a devoted cavalryman discovered in Rhoda’s writing case confirmed their tale. It was assumed Rhoda must have eloped with the mysterious ‘Jonathan’, though no young man of that name could be found either in his supposed regiment or on the guest list for the — unfortunately for the investigation — masked ball.

Despite the hue and cry that followed, Rhoda never resurfaced.  After some initial wild speculation from the press about the identity of ‘Jonathan’, the story vanished from the newspapers too — perhaps encouraged to do so by Colette’s uncle, who owned several publications across the Northern states and would not tolerate any scandal that, however tangentially, touched upon his niece’s private life.  The Poplars girls gossiped privately for a few months more, wondering who would be the first to receive a boastful postcard from the (they presumed) dramatically married Rhoda, but nothing appeared in anyone’s mail before the summer vacation.  When they returned in the Fall, for the first School year taking place wholly in the twentieth century, it was time to turn the page on the past.  Rhoda Evanston, to all intents and purposes, ceased to exist.

Colette and Darsie, however, never forgot their one-time dorm-mate.  In December 1961, Colette wrote to Darsie:

“As we approach all the rigmarole of the winter holidays for what seems like the five hundredth time in my experience (whoever could endure to live that long, through so many Christmases!), I can’t help thinking about poor, silly Rhoda.  I know we swore never to speak of it again, but that was when we were young, and I am old now and what we did pricks at my conscience in the cold early morning hours when I can neither sleep nor wake.

I am overtaken by the urge to confess, but who to?  Perhaps Miss Bayler could finally hear the truth from us from beyond the grave? To this day, I don’t think she believed a word we said, until she saw the letters.  And of course, once she had seen the letters, we were in far too deep to admit what we’d done for fear of disgracing your poor brother, jeopardizing his whole Army career when he did nothing more than drop some envelopes at the Post Office.

I go back and forth about our culpability. We were just being girls.  Thinking it was funny to trick our friend. And why wouldn’t we? Rhoda was so puffed up about her soldier boy from the picnic, insisting that their briefest encounter was the beginning of a tumultuous affair, lording over us like we were too young to understand, like she was the heroine in one of her ridiculous novels.

Oh, Rhoda! She was always one to give herself airs and graces.  I can see her now in that outrageous swan costume she wore for the ball, with the magnificent feathered mask and capelet she declared her Papa ordered from Paris.  It was wildly inappropriate for a School event, but, still, it’s a pity we were the only ones to admire her in it. If she had ever made it into the ballroom, some of the other girls would have mocked her, of course, and Miss Bayler might even have ordered her to change, but Rhoda would have adored every second of the spotlight while she commanded it.

When did we cross the line, Darsie dear?  The first letter was undoubtedly a joke, the second and third were payback for every time she made us feel small, or plain, and the fourth… I blush to think of two virginal sixteen year-olds mimicking such intensity of feeling, but we had such fun in the writing.  We could have stopped at any point that September, October, November, confessed to our ruse, relished her shock and continued as our mixed up, vindictive, impulsive, stupid but ultimately harmless teenage selves.  She would have hated us, for a time, for a long time, but we would have laughed about it in the end. For all her silliness, Rhoda was always a good sport.

But we didn’t stop, did we? We doubled down in our cruelty, for reasons that even now, in the strange clarity of these recent weeks, evade my grasp.  Were we testing her, I wonder, testing her loyalty to this phantom lover whose last name she never knew but who laid such elaborate plans to  — and I remember the phrase we used with a chill — “remove her from all earthly distractions”.  Were we yearning for such a man for ourselves, who would risk everything to brush his lips to our hands in a private place?  I think, by the end, I was jealous. I could not stand the way Rhoda sighed and blushed and bit her lip every time her mysterious suitor crossed her mind.  He was our creation, subject to our whims and desires, not hers, and by God, I wanted to see her face in the moment she realized the truth. I wanted to punish her for her depth of feeling. I have never felt that way about anyone, before or since.

Why didn’t we kill him, Darsie? A terse note from one of his fellow officers would have served admirably.  A tragic accident in training, trampled by a horse, dying with her name his last breath.  She would have believed it, wept, and begun mooning over some other beau by the New Year.

But we couldn’t stop, could we? We turned the key in the lock and it clicked and we giggled loud enough for her to hear us, on the other side of the door, but we did not linger to listen to her wail in response.  We hurried down those dirty back stairs and returned to the ballroom and the lights and the music and the champagne and the crowd and we danced danced danced across the boundary of a new century, a glorious mechanical, electrical, telegraphical, cinematical age.  We danced so fast we forgot.

Then, we remembered. I think, even that horrible morning, as we fumbled with the key just before sun-up, long after we had intended, as the very last of the bubbles were drifting off into the dawn, that I was still looking forward to it, still thought that everything would be fine, that this was just a game between the three of us, that we hadn’t done anything really very wrong.

Then you opened the door and the room was empty.

I remember your face in that exact moment.  The gaudy Harlequin mask atop your head, your dark curls in disarray. The ‘O’ as your jaw dropped. In your eyes, panic as wide as the horizon.  Then your hand, your dainty white little hand, as you raised it to the black smudge on the wall, the imprint of a palm and fingers so much larger than yours. I watched your painful moment of epiphany. We had come too late.

I’m so sorry for everything, Darsie, every word we penned as ‘Jonathan’, for every encouragement we gave to Rhoda, every point where I should have called a halt but I let you go merrily on.  And I’m sorry too that no one has yet invented a time machine so we could go back and do it over, differently, be kind.  This century has been full of such disappointments. And, as I scribble these lines to you (for who else, at our great age, gives a damn about our schoolgirl follies) I beg forgiveness for one last crime, the one you missed, but only because your parents had plucked you from The Poplars and relocated you to that glamorous Swiss pensionnat.  There was a coda to our crime, but I played it solo.

Winter lingered late in Forbs County that year.  It was only when the temperatures rose into the seventies for a few balmy days at the beginning of April that girls began to complain about the offensive odor in the second floor classrooms — as if something had crawled into the wall and died.  The chimney sweeps cleared all the flues, ejecting the remains of several dead crows in the process, and the odor faded.  Problem solved.                                                                                

The chill returned mid-month. I was sitting by a dying fire in the Common Room one evening, alone with my thoughts, when a sudden thump from within the chimney startled me, and something within the flue began to emit foul smelling smoke.

I grabbed the poker and tongs, and jabbed at whatever had fallen against the damper.  It dislodged, and fell at my feet on the hearth. The mere memory of it brings the bile to my throat.  I saw feathers, and my first thought was  yet another dead crow, but a quick prod with the poker knocked off the soot to reveal white, swan white. It was not a bird.  There was a chunk of cracked porcelain in there, with the remains of an eye socket: a mask.  I did not prod again. I did not want to know what was tangled within what had once been a fine Parisian couture capelet.

What else can I confess, Darsie? Should I tell you how, after that first, horrified recoil, I grabbed a raincoat from the back of a nearby chair and bundled every last feathery fragment inside it, then, my heart beating surely loud enough for Miss Bayler to hear, crept down the back stairs to the basement, and dumped the whole ghastly load — it was so heavy, Darsie, you wouldn’t believe — into the furnace, with another scuttle of coals on top for good measure?  Oh, how I wished you were there to help me!  I have never felt so alone, so solely responsible for my destiny — and, inescapably, yours.

The next morning I convinced myself it was all a bad dream, best forgotten, and as the years rolled by our cumbrous wrongdoing was buried in the past — like poor Rhoda.  But the past is never buried, is it? Around two weeks ago the maid was huffing and puffing in the drawing room as she did her morning chores.  Then I heard her use foul language entirely unacceptable in my house. I rushed in to reprimand her, and found her dragging a misshapen yet all too familiar object from the fireplace, a thing with feathers that had once been white, swan white, but were now crow black with soot.  Oh Darsie! I fainted clean away.

I have not left my bed since.  The doctors tell me I am dying.  There is nothing to be done except put my affairs in order. Thus, my urgent need to confess, to beg forgiveness, and to urge you, dearest, while you have time and are now fully appraised of the facts, to do the same.

Oh, Rhoda! These long painful nights I hear her crying in the walls, and I find myself hurrying through the house, flinging open door after door, as if she might still be discovered hiding in one of the linen closets and be brought, once again safe and whole and vibrant, into the light of a New Year’s Day. As I say, I am never quite asleep or awake when she comes.

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