Midnight was in full swing at the grand ballroom of The Breakers, but Caroline Taylor needed a moment away from the uproarious crowd to steel herself for the task ahead. Alone on the loggia, she sipped a glass of champagne and enjoyed the sounds of the waves crashing against the cliffs in the darkness, when a pair of women appeared on the threshold of the open French doors. They struck up a conversation in hushed whispers, and Caroline tuned her ear to get a good listen at their secrets, only to realize that she was the name on their breath.
“That poor Caroline Taylor. I can’t believe she actually came,” the first woman said.
“You know her shameless mother probably forced her to come just in case a good marriage prospect presented itself,” said the second.
“Who will want to marry her after what her father did?”
“One of those terrible old men with money to burn looking for a young woman to make wife number four.”
The two women laughed mirthlessly at their callous joke and took leave of the August night. While their words had inspired disgust, Caroline was loath to admit there was a bit of truth to them.
Caroline Taylor was a fraud. An imposter. A year earlier, after her father’s finances evaporated when a business deal had gone awry, her family had to sell almost all of their worldly possessions to make good on his debts. They’d tried to keep the secret of their loss to themselves, but secrets have a way of finding the light. Throughout the summer season, the once near constant invitations to social events began to dry up. And on the off-chance Caroline’s presence was requested at a ball or tennis match at the casino, she would inevitably overhear some society matron raking her family’s name through the mud.
Worse than being the topic of polite society gossip, however, was that her marriage prospects had gone from suitable to insufferable. Recently, gentlemen of a certain age, and dare it be said expectation, had begun to join the Taylor’s dinner table. To smile at these men with their paunches and balding heads made Caroline’s stomach turn. And she knew at any moment her parents would give her away to the highest bidder. It was just a matter of time. Every day that passed she walked along a tightrope, her future on the edge of ruin. However, she’d taken matters into her own hands when she met Sam Rutherford.
Caroline returned to the ballroom of The Breakers to find the guests in their tuxedos and gowns floating two by two to the music of a waltz that played from a set of violins. Every chandelier dripped with diamonds and light that glinted off the gild accented walls while out front the less fortunate of Newport waited at the gates to get just a glimpse of the wonders within. Caroline was trying her best to pretend she wasn’t one of them.
As the dancers parted, Sam appeared across the room surrounded by a circle of aging men whose bellies strained at their shirt buttons. Sam, with his sharp patrician features and broad shoulders, caught Caroline’s eye over the rim of his whiskey glass. He excused himself and moved slowly along the perimeter of the ballroom toward her, her heart aflutter at the sight of his handsome face.
Sam and Caroline had grown up together in the world of high society. Always a mischievous child, he’d aged into a sense a danger that swirled about him and showed in the curve of his lips when he smiled as though he held the secret of life in his pocket. Caroline finally saw evidence of his recklessness when she watched him lift a golden swan from off an end table in the ballroom of The Elms, where all were gathered, and gingerly placed it in a hidden compartment of his suit jacket. No one else paid attention to the theft, too busy with their champagne and dancing to be bothered, but Caroline saw and wondered how he’d been so daring to take that which wasn’t his in plain sight. He caught her gaze and winked, his mouth crawling slowly into a smirk, and Caroline felt her heart flutter like a hummingbird.
The following week at a gala at Marble House, he’d approached Caroline with a flute of champagne and a proposition.
“I’ve heard you’re in need of a more abundant financial situation,” he said, as he twirled her around the ballroom.
“You are foolish to believe rumors, Rutherford,” Caroline said.
“But how can they be rumors if they are true?”
“Then, you have a skewed sense of the truth.”
Sam pulled Caroline in close. “What if I told you I could offer you a rope?”
“What are you talking about?”
“A line to pull you and your family out of the red.”
“I’d say you were speaking in riddles.”
Sam laughed softly. “I’m promising you a better life. A good life. Not marriage, mind you.”
Caroline then understood the terms of his offer. “Through stealing what isn’t yours?”
“Think of it like Robin Hood. Steal from the rich—”
“So, you give to the poor?”
“Something like that.”
She was ashamed of herself for her even considering. Good women from good families didn’t dabble in thievery. But her options for survival were slim and unsavory, and Sam Rutherford and his cunning wrapped her in his spell. So, with equal parts reluctance and desperation, she agreed.
At The Breakers, Sam extended his hand to Caroline amidst the couples drunk on champagne and music.
“Shall we?” he asked, leading her out onto the dancefloor to be swallowed by the sea of pairs.
Sam rested his cheek against Caroline’s, his lips deliciously close to her ear.
“Do you want it?” he asked.
“Do you have it?”
He pressed Caroline tighter against his strong body. “What would you do for it?”
“What haven’t I done for it?” she whispered, playfully.
Caroline felt him smile against her skin. “The safe is in the corner of the ballroom behind the painting of old King Louis.”
“And the key?”
He slid his hand into his pocket and deftly pressed a piece of cold metal between their palms.
“After this song, I’ll cut off the electricity from the fuse box downstairs. You go to the safe,” he said.
“If I didn’t know you were a conman, I might have wanted to marry you.”
“Well, that’s certainly unfortunate because if you pull this off, I might be inclined to ask,” he teased.
The song ended, and Caroline pulled away from Sam’s warm embrace, the heat of his gaze enough to light all the matches in her heart ablaze.
“Meet you by the water,” he said as he walked toward the back of the room, stopping along the way to talk to Mr. Van Riper.
The band kicked up a more spirited melody, the dancers picking up their energy to match the music. Caroline took a glass of champagne from off a tray and drank it in nearly one go to quiet the nerves that beat through her veins like a chorus line.
She strolled along the outskirts of the dancefloor, pretending to admire the paintings of European landscapes and portraits of French and British royalty.
Right at the height of the song, right as she landed her mark in front of old Louis in his white wig and garish costume, the lights cut off in a loud show of darkness.
“What’s going on?” a woman shouted.
“By heavens, what is the meaning of this?” a man’s voice lamented.
The partygoers expressed their anxieties in asynchronous disharmony, but Caroline was resolute in her determination to get what she needed and run. She worked quickly, pulling the painting away from the wall and unearthing the key from her palm to unlock the safe.
On a pillow sat the Vanderbilt Diamond, vivid and flawless in both physical appearance and possibility, and shimmering as if lit from within. Caroline took it out of the safe and studied it for a moment, transfixed by the object that could change the course of her destiny. Deep in its center laid her future. She could see it as clearly as if she were holding a crystal ball in her hands.
A shiver ran down her spine at the prospect of a new beginning. No longer would there be red nosed, white haired old men seated at her parent’s table looking to make her wife number three or four. For Caroline would no longer be seated at her parent’s table ready to welcome unwanted guests.
Through the diamond, she heard Sam’s promises of freedom. A life of sex and scandal, adventure and mystery away from the prying eyes of polite society. But when she looked closer, a whole world independent of every path that had ever been laid out before her presented itself fully. A whole world that no man, not even Sam, was a part of. Caroline couldn’t resist the call.
She wrapped the diamond in a silk handkerchief and tucked it inside of her purse, securing the clasp to ensure its safety. The ballroom was bathed in moonlight, and the guests milled around anxiously, awaiting the return of the music and merriment that had been lost to the darkness. She used the moment to carefully extract herself from the fold, slowly following along the wall until she found the French doors that led out to the back.
Swiftly, Caroline descended the stone stairs into the grass of the backyard, running toward the cliff walk and down the dirt path to the Forty Steps. There was no time to look behind to see if she’d been followed, but she kept her ear focused on the sounds of the world around her, praying that she had given herself enough of a lead to evade Sam or whoever else might have seen her take off with the precious Vanderbilt Diamond.
At the bottom of the Forty Steps, a small rowboat beat against the final stair, anchored by a piece of rope tied to a post. Caroline’s breath felt like fire in her lungs as she lowered herself into the vessel, untied the knot, and worked the ores, pushing and pulling, pushing and pulling, quickly, quickly.
By the time Sam stomped into the water, she was so far out to sea that he looked to be the size of a paper doll, the world of Newport behind him nothing more than a toy. Her parents would be furious when they found out what she’d done, but she couldn’t be someone’s wife. Caroline wanted freedom, true freedom. So, she left them all in darkness and rowed away into midnight.
Robyn Neilsen is a content writer for an educational enrichment company, where she publishes academic resources. Her flash fiction placed in the top ten stories for the 2021 NYC Midnight Flash Fiction Competition and has been published in The Lorelei Signal, Thought Catalog, Vocal, and Mogul.
You can find her blog at robynneilsen.com.