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No accessory delights the eye or gladdens the heart like the appropriate hat, and Emma Ludwig had spent the morning in Staten Island proving just that to none other than Emily Post. As Manhattan hastened to the twentieth century, if clothes made the man, hats made the woman. To be a milliner in this fine time was a privilege and an honor. Emma was an artiste, a master, or should she say mistress, of her craft, and a business-woman.
Having completed Mrs. Post’s fitting, Emma left the finely-appointed drawing room delighted with their session. In the entry hall, she paused at the reflection of a tray wavering in a gilded mirror. Below the mirror, on a mahogany table, a silver server with an elaborate rimmed border held a pile of calling cards. Emma’s heart beat furiously as she stepped toward the tray. On top she saw a tempting array of yesterday’s visiting cards—a red-fringed design featuring swans on a mountain lake, a scalloped one embroidered with silky threads in hues of aquamarine, rose and violet, and an intriguing selection of fan-shaped styles capable of collapsing and expanding. Emma wanted so badly to hold just one, but the butler stood uncomfortably close; so close she thought she smelled a hint of sherry on his breath.
Moving out of view, the butler pulled the door open. “Good day, Miss Ludwig,” he said, waving his arm across the threshold.
Intent on the reflection in the mirror, Emma read the names on two of the calling cards—Mrs. Hamilton Twombling and Miss Cora Randolph. Incredibly, they were both members of the Four Hundred! Here she was beside them, so close that if she wished she might steal one. She dared not look toward the butler. Instead, she shifted her hat until its violet brim swooped dramatically from above one ear to below the other.
“Will there be anything else?” The butler’s question dripped with irritation.
Outside, two girls laughed as they chased hoops down the street. The butler turned his head and, for a moment, focused his pretentious attitude toward the innocent children. Emma watched his gaze as she inched her fingers toward the silver tray.
The plate of calling cards represented Manhattan’s finest women. If Emma could just add one of them to her clientele, it would make a huge difference for her business. It was not as if Mrs. Post would miss just one card. After all, surely she remembered who had called on her throughout the day. It wasn’t stealing exactly, wouldn’t Mrs. Post be more than glad to share the names with Emma? But what if the butler caught her? No matter. What could he do?
Her heart pounding, with one quick snap of her wrist, Emma snatched Miss Randolph’s card as if it were the tail of a runaway mouse. Just as Emma placed it into her palm, the butler cleared his throat. Emma stiffened. Pretending to straighten her gloves, she hid the card in her hand, raised her chin and acknowledged the butler with a nod of her head as she left the house.
As Emma walked to the ferry, the noonday sun beat down on the great houses of the island. Somehow this quiet street in Dongan Hills managed to sound and smell not of money, but of success and taste. On one side, she heard the snip of shears against a boxwood; on the other, a swarm of bees hummed over a trellis of intertwining yellow and coral honeysuckle.
The scent of baking bread wafted from the kitchen windows as the cooks busied themselves with lunch preparations—perhaps chicken fricassee for Number 22 and a filet of sole cooked in gruyere and sherry for 23. These dishes were created for the husbands, or in some cases, a Ladies’ Aid Society meeting. She wondered if it was a sign of prestige for the husband to dine at home for lunch. Or perhaps the wives felt it an unwelcome interruption to their otherwise carefree day. Emma thought she might prefer the ladies’ lunch of light dishes and idle chatter to the solemn company of a man fretting about stocks and hog bellies.
Perhaps she was on the verge of joining the ranks of the privileged herself. When she did, she would rescue her mother from the boarding house and her brother from his fanciful ways. They, too, would live well, eating terrapin and duck instead of boiled cabbage and potatoes. Maybe not the terrapin, she reconsidered, after all, if she wanted a turtle all she needed to do was march over to Washington Pond and snatch one out of the water.
No, when Emma moved to Fifth Avenue, she would not dine on reptiles. Instead, her guests would feast on Delmonico steak and Chicken à la King with Baked Alaska for dessert.