The Aunts had caught Carolyn, dragged her to the side of the boat, figuratively speaking, and were forcibly attempting to Crespinize her, while she, Carolyn, twisted on the hook in desperation.
"I don't think it's proper," she murmured politely, hiding panic, hoping the idea of propriety would make them pause. Fond hope. Hope betrayed.
"Albert is perfectly reliable," said Aunt Clotilde with a dreadful clatter of large, too-white teeth.
As, oh, indeed he was. Perfectly reliable. Perfectly self-satisfied. Perfectly capable of taking any ordinary weekend and turning it into the Worst Experience of One's Life. Carolyn, gritting her teeth, stared through the screens of the summer porch at the stretching blue of Long Island Sound and focused on the radio sounds in the background: "Mr. Sandman," being sung by who? Whom. Mr. Sandman. Send me a dream. Not Albert.
Aunt Atrena, who always spoke immediately after Aunt Clotilde, did so now in a tone that said, Pay Attention, Child. "Albert thought it would be a treat for you, before you start college. You know he would never do anything to embarrass you."
Aside from the embarrassment attendant upon being seen with him, that was probably true. And since she knew no one in Washington, D.C., chances are she could go down there for the weekend, take the tour through the FBI building (a signal honor, according to Albert, not allowed to Just Anyone), see the Smithsonian, go to the opening of whatever show it was at the National Museum, and be returned home unscathed.
"He will be so hurt if you don't go," said Aunt Livia, whose function it was to have the Last Word.
"Yes, Carolyn. He would be hurt," said Mama.
Which clinched it. What Mama meant was, if Carolyn didn't accept Albert's invitation, Mama would be hurt. The aunts would eat her alive. Albert and the aunts, including Albert's mama, Aunt Fan, had decided that Albert and Carolyn were to be a Crespin couple. Albert Crespin was Crespin through and through--a highly inbred member of the clan, Aunt Fan a kind of cousin to Albert's daddy and all that--unlike Carolyn, who was a Crespin only on her father's side, her father having inexplicably married outside his ilk, then unforgivably up and died before he could inculcate proper Crespin values into his only child. Though that wasn't supposed to matter, for Albert was Crespin enough for the two of them.
"Of course, Mama, Aunties, if you wish," Carolyn said, smiling sweetly. It was what one said as a last resort. It solved problems. It quieted tempers. It got Carolyn off the hook, at least temporarily, though she had a sick pain in her stomach that did not feel transitory.
Aunts Clotilde, Atrena, and Livia exchanged superior glances. There, the faces said. One has only to be Firm With The Child. Mama was looking into her lap, her lower lip quivering ever so slightly. She was frightened of the aunts; she was well and truly hooked and gaffed. Carolyn's father had left an annuity for his widow, an annuity that could be stretched to cover clothing and salary for Mama's maid and Carolyn's education and a few small charities, but it wouldn't stretch to such necessities as housing and heat and lights and taxes, so Mama and Carolyn either lived with the family or they didn't live. Unless Mama got married again.
Which, though Mama was quite young and lovely, she would never do. Clotilde, Atrena, and Livia believed that Mama's remarriage would be Unfaithful to Dear Roger's Memory. They'd won that one long ago.
And now that the matter of Albert and Carolyn was settled, they gathered up their needlework and went off to settle someone else's fate. Mama, with a grateful caress across Carolyn's shoulder, went in the other direction, toward the bathroom. She often spent hours in the tub, breathing moist perfumed vapors, safe in the only sanctum the aunts would not invade.
Carolyn was left alone on the summer porch, once shaded by huge old elms. She remembered summer-dusk games under the elms, herself leaning against a great tree, eyes hidden in her hands, slowly counting: twenty-nine...fifty-six...ninety-five...one hundred. Ready or not, here I come! Here I come seeking something that has no name, something hidden, something wonderful. Here I come, with no idea where it is but needing so...so much to find it. It was only her cousins, hiding out there, so why had she felt that she might find the other thing? Even now, when dusk came and she heard the voices of children playing, she remembered that feeling of mysterious anticipation. Marvel, just around the corner. Wonder, hidden in shadows, if she could only find it.
Everything had changed since then. All the elms were gone now. Once-shaded houses stood full in the glare of the August sun, as she herself now stood, no longer protected by leafy childhood, alone in the baking heat and burning light of Crespin conformity.
The Crespin men went into banking and law. Crespin women did not work outside the home except for certain charities, and they did not join many of those. If one joined groups, one might have to associate with persons one had not picked as acquaintances. One did, of course, practice one's religion devoutly, and one did entertain one's husband's business associates, but that was a different matter, akin to diplomacy. To prepare for that, one studied languages, one learned about opera and art, one even boned up on whatever esoterica a distinguished visitor was said to be interested in. In this Crespins were rather like royalty. Noblesse oblige, as a matter of course, but no damned familiarity allowed.
Crespin women, though not always pretty, were uniformly fashionable though not faddish, slender though not bony, aristocratic to a fault. They went to good Catholic prep schools, after which they might spend a year or so perfecting French or German on the Continent, under proper supervision, before attending college. At home they learned the Crespin vocabulary as they learned the catechism, and for the same reason. Salvation was dependent upon knowing What the Family Meant. There were patronizing words to remind inferiors of their proper place, there was inconsequential chitchat to keep strangers at a distance, there were courteous words for religious occasions and implacable phrases for inculcating Crespin consciousness in the young.
Carolyn did not fit. She made friends with the maids, she discussed anything at all with people she met on the train, she argued with Father O'Brien about the catechism, and had so far remained stocky, untidy, ungraceful, willful, un-Crespinized.
"But, my dear child," Aunt Clotilde had said on a former occasion "Crespin women do not Work Outside the Home. They certainly do not go into the professions."
"Crespin women do not go into anything but becoming interfering, arrogant old tyrants, so far as I can see."
Carolyn's mama, shocked: "Carolyn, apologize to your aunt at once!"
"Mother, I am sorry, but it's you and me I'm sorry for. You weren't born a Crespin, and I'm evidently a throwback or something. I don't want to be a Crespin woman! I want to be a lawyer." Was it just that Father had been a lawyer? Or was it a longing for the real, the true, the eternal, rather than whatever the Crespins were?
Though she was fifteen at the time of that outburst, she had been Sent To Her Room. It was typical of Crespin culture that single women even in their twenties might be Sent To Their Rooms, and wives at any age likewise, though with a quiet word whispered into an ear. "My dear, you're overwrought. My dear, go lie down for a bit." It did no good to rebel. The custom predated the Victorian age and had all the power of tradition. Women, when in public, were always groomed, poised, gracious, and socially adept, and Carolyn would conform or else. There were inevitabilities at work; in the end the aunts would have their way. They were the spinners of history, the passers on of tradition, those who trimmed and chopped away all spontaneity. Even the temporary freedom offered by college, the exposure to ordinary people, was part of the plan.
As for Albert, he was an American hero in the postlarval stage, a lawyer with the FBI. Albert was devout; he worked indefatigably with the Knights of Columbus. Albert had Served in Korea, albeit (strings had been pulled) in the office of the judge advocate. Until the time a few years back when Senator Joe McCarthy had gone down in flames, Albert had been one of the senator's more ardent supporters. Even now Albert saw himself as standing between America and all those who would sully her purity.
On the night of Carolyn's graduation from St. Mary's, Albert had taken her out to dinner and told her all about their plans, his and hers: They would be engaged when she graduated from college and married six months later, to allow time for the various prenuptial festivities that the aunts would arrange. It was too soon for a ring, but he presented her with an eighteen-karat charm bracelet, announcing in a patronizing tone that he would add pretty charms over the next four years. Carolyn supposed it was a kind of option plan. One charm bought him a Carolyn foot, another paid for a leg, another gained him the left tit. By the time they were married, she'd be all paid for, the last charm claiming the necessary part for the wedding night.
So, all right, she'd go to Washington and be shown where Albert worked. One thing the aunts were right about. She was safe with Albert. Albert had never provoked in her the tiniest throb of lust. His kisses were chaste, his embraces perfunctory, and she might as well be out with Father O'Brien. As a matter of fact, Father O'Brien, for all his years and his cassock, had more of a twinkle than Albert did.
Excerpted from Gibbon's Decline and Fall by Sherri S. Tepper. Copyright © 1997 by Sheri S. Tepper. Excerpted by permission of Spectra, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.