For the longest time, Nell Marchand believed the happiest day of her life was the one on which she’d married dashing blueblood Daniel Ellis Overton Marchand IV. On the sun-washed Wednesday when she buried him next to I, II, and III under a magnolia in grand old Elmwood Cemetery with everybody who was anybody huddled in the March wind for the final send-off, she knew that she had been wrong all along.
Nell squeezed a fistful of rich West Tennessee dirt into the tightest clump she could manage and dropped it onto her husband’s coffin. When it struck, the polished mahogany lid pealed for all the world like the Liberty Bell.
This, she said to herself, this is it.
A swell of thankfulness toward Ellis for dropping dead so completely unexpectedly and in apparently such resoundingly good health made her want to tear off her hat and veil and fling them into the air like a child celebrating the last day of school. Now, she really could do absolutely whatever she wanted whenever she wanted and wherever she wanted.
Paris, for example. She’d go back to that flat off Boulevard de La Tour-Maubourg where they had been so happy on their honeymoon. She would eat all the buttery croissants she could stuff in her mouth and wash them down with all the champagne she could swallow. The French had more sense that to put up with anything like Prohibition.
When the last mourner sprinkled the final handful over Ellis, the preacher closed his Bible with a gentle thump. Behind her black lace veil, Nell smiled.
Back at the house, all of Memphis society, Boss Crump, Mayor Overton, and even Senator Cordell Hull himself—come all the way from Washington—pressed her fingers in sympathy.
“Heart attack took his daddy, too, didn’t it?,” they murmured. “Still, he was awful young. What a shame.”
“We sure are going to miss him.”
“Bless your heart.”
And then they passed into the double parlor, skirting General Oates’s wooden leg in its burled walnut-and-glass case to get to the long tables on which her cook Hattie had piled mountains of food.
As was seemly for a fresh widow, from time to time Nell touched her handkerchief to her nose. A lady never wept in public. Even Bess Marchand was behaving tolerably, playing the grieving mother with quiet dignity rather than carrying on the way she could when she had a mind to.
All in all, it was a very good day.
Once they had all gone, Nell was about to free her feet from the torture of her stylishly somber shoes so she could stand barefoot on the cool floor at the sink and dry the dishes as Hattie washed them and talk over the wake and what everyone had brought and said and worn. A sudden shiver shook Nell so hard that she had to grab the edge of the table to steady herself.
“Somebody walking on your grave, honey?” Hattie said.
Nell hugged herself and wiggled her heel again. Just then, Anton Green, the Marchands’ lanky family attorney and Ellis’s godfather, poked his balding head into the kitchen. “I need you a minute, Nell,” he said. He came to take her by the elbow and guided her into the sitting room that looked out on the back gardens.
“I probably shouldn’t tell you this today, but I think you need to know before you get yourself into trouble.”
“Anton, what on earth?”
Nell perched on the edge of old Judge Marchand’s awful horsehair sofa.
Hands clasped behind his back, muttering, Anton took a couple of turns in front of the fireplace like a preoccupied stork. A definite unpleasantness stirred in Nell’s middle. He stopped in front of her, and, Lord Almighty, if he didn’t look as though he might bust loose and cry.
“Oh, my dear, I’m so sorry. There’s nothing left.”
“Nothing left. I don’t understand. Nothing left of what?”
“Of your money. It’s all gone.”
It took a small eternity for that to sink in. Nell smoothed her handkerchief against her thigh, folded it in half, folded it again. “When you say ‘nothing,’ do you mean every bit of it?”
“Every last bit.”
“I’m afraid so.”
Choking back wild laughter that bubbled at the back of her throat, she looked up at Anton, who, now that he had delivered the death blow, seemed more composed.
“But how can that be? Ellis said he was too smart for the Crash to touch us.”
“Well, now, Nell, you know Ellis sometimes found the truth disagreeable. I reckon he thought that if he didn’t let on he was broke, he wouldn’t be.”
Nell twisted the handkerchief.
“What am I going to do?”
Anton sat beside her. “I’m sure we can find something for you.”
“You mean go to some horrible little office all day?”
“There are worse things, Nell.”
“Yes. Yes, I’m sure there must be, though for the life of me, I can’t quite think what they might be just now.” Nell unfurled the handkerchief and began to smooth it again. “What about Mother Marchand’s money?”
Nell wiped her nose, feeling sincere but not particularly brave. “But this Depression they talk about. I thought that’s why all those men show up at the kitchen door every day. I thought that’s why there are such throngs when Miss Bess and I work at the soup kitchen downtown. I thought that’s why we just elected Mr. Roosevelt. Because there aren’t any jobs.”
She slumped against the back of the sofa and draped her forearm across her eyes. “I don’t know how to do anything.”
“What about your folks in Mississippi?”
“Gone. The flu took most of them, just like Mama and Daddy. I haven’t got anybody.”
“You can learn to type or keep books.”
“But I was going to Paris.”
Even in her own ears, her voice was small. She thought several very unladylike things that would have made her mother speak sharply to her had she said them out loud and had her mother still been alive. For first time in she couldn’t remember how long, Nell Marchand cried real tears.