The Art of the Swap
Chapter One Hannah
SO, IF YOU EVER NEED the perfect setting for a life-size version of the board game Clue (you know, Miss Scarlet in the conservatory with a lead pipe?), look no further. It’s my house. Because we’ve got a conservatory. And a ballroom. Hall? Dining room? Library? Check, check, double check. Kitchen? Obviously.
Plus, if you want alternate murder locales (not real murders, just board game varieties), there are forty-two other room options. Like one devoted entirely to making ice, called—wait for it—the ice-making room. No, seriously. An entire room devoted to . . . ice.
There are also sunken gardens with teahouses, and
statues, and murals painted right onto the ceilings, and walls covered in silk, and marble floors, and sitting rooms, and carriage houses, and an underground railroad track from the street into the basement, and columns, and arches, and so much gilded gold, and, and, AND!
I live in a mansion.
(Which definitely doesn’t suck.)
After slipping my shoes off when I hit the back terrace, I tuck my fingers through my sandal straps so that they dangle from my right hand while my left pushes open the glass door. I step into the hallway. The ceiling is so high, three other me’s could stand on my shoulders and still not reach the top . . . and I’m pretty tall for twelve.
Tiptoeing across the marble floor, I head for the grand staircase, but I hear a voice in one of the nearby rooms that I just can’t ignore, no matter how many times I’ve been told to please, please try. I should keep walking. I know this.
But I don’t.
“And of course, here we have the ballroom,” the voice is saying, in a kind of snooty tone. “Step inside, step inside, everyone. This is the largest room in the home and was host to glamorous evenings of high-society entertaining. You are standing in what was considered the most fashionable
house on the most fashionable street in the most fashionable resort during America’s Gilded Age.”
I creep behind a woman in a red sundress who raises her hand.
“How many people would this space accommodate?” she asks.
Oh, um, I might have forgotten to mention that our house is sometimes open for tours. What with being the most fashionable house on the most fashionable street blah, blah, blah. I don’t mind. It’s pretty cool to show off the amazingness I get to live among every single day.
“Hundreds,” Trent answers. He’s my least favorite of the docents. He has silver-white hair he is forever smoothing down with a palm he licks first, and he stands way too straight for anyone who’s not a statue.
“When the home was completed on August 30, 1902,” Trent says, “Mr. and Mrs. Berwind played host to more than a hundred guests for a seventeenth-century cotillion. Two famous orchestras performed, and there were even monkeys scattered about the gardens.”
Okay, once again, I know I shouldn’t do this. I know, I know, I know. But it’s like one of those mischievous monkeys is sitting on my shoulder, poking me. I clear my throat, and then . . . I do it.
“Ahem. Excuse me? Trent? I don’t mean to interrupt your tour, but I’d like to clarify a few things you just said. The house was completed on August 30, 1901, not 1902. Cotillions were an eighteenth-century formal ball. Also, there were more than two hundred guests who attended, and actually the monkeys were really over-the-top for the Berwinds. I don’t want anyone on the tour to think that was a typical occurrence. Although, the Berwinds did entertain a lot. Like, A LOT a lot.”
Trent stares daggers at me. Then he remembers there are people watching and forces a smile that doesn’t quite reach his eyes.
“Ladies and gentlemen, please pardon the interruption. We have a young history buff here.” His words are pleasant, but he says the words “history buff” the same way I might say “we’re having sauerkraut and undercooked liver for dinner.” If he feels that way about the past, maybe he shouldn’t be giving historical tours. Just saying.
He adds, “Allow me to introduce Hannah. She’s our caretaker’s daughter.”
Oh. I might also have forgotten to mention that. Although technically speaking I do live here inside this mansion, called The Elms, I sort of left out the part where
my dad and I have our rooms upstairs in the former servants’ quarters/current caretaker’s apartment. Which, I guess, doesn’t make us that different from servants, only we don’t really serve anyone so much as keep the place looking perfect for all the visitors who roll through here every day to admire how the mega-super-rich used to live back in Newport’s heyday. The state of Rhode Island might be extra tiny, but the “summer cottages” around here are anything but.
Visitors go home at the end of the day. And me? Well, I get to stay and hold cotillions of my own in the ballroom. Who cares if my ball gown is really a nightgown and my dance partner is my stuffed bear, Berwind, aka “Windy.” He’s surprisingly good at spinning.
I also get to read the books in the library. (Yes, I had to get special training to handle them and they are a hundred-plus years old and therefore smell like dust and mothballs, but I suffer through that part because it’s thrilling to think that the Berwinds—or maybe one of their glamorous houseguests—turned the very same pages!) And I splash all I want in the fountains or sunbathe on the rooftop anytime I feel like it. It might not technically be my house, but it basically is. It’s the only home I’ve ever known. I’ve explored every square inch of this place, and
I know the Berwind family history probably better than any Berwind ever did. I kind of, sort of, consider them my family too. I would give anything to have lived back then and known them for real.
“Where is the famous Margaret Dunlap portrait?” a man in a Red Sox cap asks.
Trent turns and gestures for everyone to follow him into the adjoining drawing room. He points at a large gilded mirror. A smaller—but still pretty big—painting hangs from long wires right in front of it, almost like the mirror is forming a second frame around the first one. (It was a style back then.) “Obviously, that is the age-old question, isn’t it? Here is the commissioned reproduction of the now-famous painting. As most of you know, the original was stolen in a renowned art heist on the evening of its scheduled unveiling in 1905. The room was full of high society turned out in their finest. . . .” Trent pauses for effect, and I try not to roll my eyes. “But no one ever saw the portrait hanging. When they removed the silk sheet covering the portrait . . . the painting was gone!”
The art heist is Trent’s favorite part of the tour. And I get it. It’s one of my favorite things about the Berwinds’ history too. A mystery for the ages. The priceless portrait
was painted by famed artist Mary Cassatt and commissioned by Mrs. Berwind to mark the occasion of her beloved niece Margaret’s thirteenth birthday. But even though the police determined that a kitchen boy named Jonah Rankin stole the work of art, he disappeared before he could be arrested. No one has ever found the missing art.
Many have tried.
“If the picture was gone before the unveiling and wasn’t ever seen by anyone, how was it able to be re-created here?” the guy in the Sox cap asks, gesturing at the painting of a serenely smiling Margaret (whom I secretly call Maggie, because I read once that her close family called her that) in a daffodil-yellow gown that billows around her as she sits with her hands folded in her lap. Her eyes twinkle like she has a secret for only me. I’m positive that if I’d lived back then, we would have been best friends. I can just tell.
But I live here and now, with a pretentious docent shooting me glares when he thinks no one will notice. Sigh.
“There was exactly one photograph of the painting, taken over Mary Cassatt’s shoulder during the last portrait sitting,” Trent says. “Of course, cameras were still
new then—and only accessible to the upper class—so it wasn’t the best image, but—”
Don’t butt in, Hannah. Don’t butt in. Remember how upset Dad got the last time the docents complained about you.
I know that should be incentive enough to turn and run away, but Trent always messes this part up, and I can’t stand here and let people learn the wrong version of history. I just can’t. Besides loving The Elms enough to care that our guests are getting the right information, I also can’t help hoping that one of these days the docents will realize I’m more than some bratty kid who’s always underfoot, which I swear is how they treat me. I guess not all of them are that bad. I mean, Trent’s my total nemesis, but some of the others aren’t outright dismissive. Yet they sure aren’t outright accepting of me as their peer either. It sucks to be judged by something I can’t control. If I could make myself older, believe me, I would.
Maybe this is gonna sound all humble-braggy, but I’m pretty used to being decent at things. Okay, maybe even a little better than decent. And I’m also kind of used to being recognized for that. Take the soccer field, for example. Everyone knows that if the ball comes my way, I’m most likely gonna block the goal. Or at school. Let’s just say I get by pretty well and I have the
awards to prove it, especially when it’s anything related to my favorite subject: history. But somehow no one else seems to accept that I know my stuff when it comes to The Elms. I’m not expecting a trophy for it, but a teeny tiny bit of acknowledgment—or, God forbid, some encouragement—wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world, would it?
But no. Never. Not when I was the one to notice that someone had nudged one of the chairs in Mrs. Berwind’s bedroom, so that a corner of it was getting hit with light from the window. (Daylight is public enemy number one for antique fabric.) Not when I stayed up all night helping my dad patch a corner of the roof in the middle of a rainstorm, before any water could drip down onto the fresco in the dining room. (Actually, maybe water is public enemy number one . . . for antique anything.) It’s so annoying. I wish that just once I could get some respect around here. Plus, these people are taking the tour to learn the facts, and it’s only fair that they get the right ones.
I take a deep breath. I’m crossing a big line here by butting in on Trent. I know he actively hates me (as opposed to the other docents, who mostly just ignore me) and I really should just leave his tours alone, but it
KILLS me that these guests are getting the wrong information. I keep crossing my fingers that if I can get away with correcting him long enough for guests to mention all his errors on their comment cards, he’ll be reassigned to the gift shop or something. Then every future visitor will leave with the accurate version of The Elms’ history. I know it’s just a house, so what difference does it make if some tours get a slightly wonky version of things that took place here more than a hundred years ago? But I can’t help it: I care. It’s my house, and even though the history isn’t mine exactly, I still feel connected to it.
Last chance to reconsider, Hannah.
“Actually, about half the households in the country had a camera by 1905,” I say.
Trent takes me by the elbow, and his fingernails dig in way more than necessary. Way more. I try to wiggle free, but he tightens his grip as he says, in a fake-cheerful voice, “Oh goodness, thank you so very much for illuminating us on the origins of photography, young Hannah. I’m only sorry you won’t be able to join us for the rest of the tour. Ladies and gentlemen, if you’ll please look up, I’m sure you’ll marvel at the elaborate painted murals on the ceilings.”
Under his breath he hisses, “Your father will be hearing
about this, young lady! It might even be time to get the Antiquities Society involved. Dear old Dad’s job can go away like that, you know.” He snaps his fingers, and now his creepy smile makes him look like the Grinch. “And put some shoes on. You look like a street rat. Although, maybe that’s appropriate, since that’s exactly where you may end up, once I’ve had my say with your father’s bosses!”
Mansion living is mostly amazing.
High and mighty docents who get half the details wrong more than 80 percent of the time and still think it’s okay to get mad at me for basically doing their job are super-annoying.
Still, once my dad hears about this, I am extra dead.