Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts July 1901
“Dorothy? Come help me, won’t you?” Grace Boisvert beckoned to her younger sister from the bathroom doorway. She wore an old brown flannel wrapper, and her long, freshly washed hair dripped down her back. “And stop making all that noise or you’ll wake Grand-mère.”
“Nothing wakes Grand-mère when she’s napping after lunch. Not even me.” Dorothy paused in her headlong gallop down the upstairs hall, brown braids flying—she’d been re-reading Black Beauty for the seventeenth time—and looked bright-eyed at Grace. “What do you want help with? And why don’t you want Grand-mère to know what you’re doing?”
Why couldn’t she have had a less perceptive little sister? Fortunately she’d learned from experience the best way to handle Dorothy: she put a finger over her pursed lips and raised an eyebrow.
It worked every time; Dorothy tiptoed to her. “What is it?” she whispered.
Grace gently closed the door behind them. “I need to do my hair.”
Dorothy perched on the mahogany lid of the toilet. “So why are you doing it while Grand-mère’s asleep?”
“Because I want to try something different.” Grace paused, but it was too late to reconsider. All she could do was hope Dorothy would be interested enough that she wouldn’t tattle. It would be a shame if she did, because this purchase had cost three weeks’ pocket money. She pulled a small, paper-wrapped parcel from one of the deep pockets of her robe.
“Ooh, what is it?” Dorothy craned to see it.
“I got it in town at Jordan Marsh.” Grace unwrapped the parcel to reveal a bottle with an elaborate gilded label.
“‘Mademoiselle’s Secret. For the hair. Used by Famous Parisian Beauties since 1854,’” Dorothy read aloud. “‘The Most Natural Tints Beyond Those Provided by Mother Nature.’” She looked up at Grace. “Why wouldn’t Grand-mère like it? It’s French, isn’t it?”
Grace set the bottle on the marble counter by the sink and picked up her brush. “Yes, but it’s not how she does it. I’m tired of her black-walnut-hull-and-coffee-bean stuff. It smells funny and stains horribly if you get it on your skin. I want to try something modern.”
“Eighteen fifty-four isn’t exactly modern, you know.” Dorothy hopped up, took the bottle, pried the stopper from it, and sniffed. “But it does smell better.”
“Anything smells better.” Grace leaned toward the mirror, peering at her hairline. An eighth of an inch of rich green showed there. She should have done her hair days ago, but guests at lunch three days running had meant disruption to Grand-mère’s nap schedule. “All right,” she said briskly. “Hand me that pail, won’t you?”
Dorothy complied. “When do you think my hair will start to turn green?”
“When it’s ready. Don’t be in a hurry to grow up. It’s a rotten chore, having to dye it all the time. Not to mention wearing corsets and putting up with visits from the red-haired lady every month.” Grace set the pail under the hot water tap in the sink and turned it on, then consulted the bottle of Mademoiselle’s Secret—in “honeyed chestnut,” which she’d chosen in honor of the enormous chestnut tree outside her bedroom window that sang her to sleep every night. “It says one cup per gallon of water—goodness, that’ll be most of the bottle!—and to soak the hair until the desired shade is obtained—”
“What are you supposed to do? Stand on your head in the bucket?” Dorothy collapsed on the floor, snorting giggles.
“Hush!” Grace prodded her with one slippered foot. “Now, let’s see…if we put the pail on the toilet lid, I can sort of bend over it, and you can make sure all my hair is in it and pour the stuff over the back of my head so it gets down to the roots.” Then, because Dorothy was starting to look mutinous, she added, “And I’ll help you do the same when it’s your turn.”
“No you won’t. By the time it’s my turn, you’ll probably be off getting married or something.” Dorothy glowered up at her.
Grace stopped reading the label and looked down at her sister. “Yes, I will. Even if I’m married I’ll come and help you. You know I always keep my promises. Now, let’s see how this works.”
Without another word, Dorothy watched while she mixed the dye and helped her get all her hair into the pail, then carefully poured the liquid over the back of her head where it wasn’t fully immersed.
“What are you using to pour it?” The lapels of Grace’s wrapper had flopped down over her chin and ears, making it difficult to both see and hear. At least if Dorothy got any dye on her brown robe, no one would notice.
“Your tooth glass,” Dorothy said cheerfully. “I hope it won’t stain it. If it does, you can bury it in the trash dump and tell Mum you broke it.”
Grace closed her eyes. You’re the one who asked her to help, Miss Clever Boots.
“At least you don’t have to do what Grand-mère did and rub your forearms with lemons to bleach out the green hair there,” Dorothy continued. “I asked her why she didn’t shave ’em instead, but she said that wouldn’t be ladylike. I don’t see how rubbing ’em with a lemon is, though.”
“Neither do I.” Maybe she should be a blonde instead, and sit in the sun with lemon in her hair. But she’d always dyed her hair brown, and becoming blonde would be far too noticeable. “I wish I knew how long I need to stand like thi—”
“Did I hear the doorbell?” Dorothy paused in mid-pour.
“No, it’s just the ringing in my ears,” Grace muttered. Standing bent over the toilet with her hair in a bucket was starting to make her dizzy.
“I’ll go check.”
Grace heard the clink! of the glass being set on the marble counter and the creak the lower door hinge always made when opening. “Dorothy, get back here!” she called, loudly as she dared. “Rose will answer the door!”
But it was too late. Dorothy was down the hall, shrieking, “Who is it, Rose?” over the banister down to the front hall. So much for Grand-mère’s nap…and her French dye. Grace gathered up her hair and tried to squeeze as much liquid as possible from it, then wiped her hands on her brown robe before the dye could stain them.
Dorothy came thundering back down the hall and flung the bathroom door wide open. “Grace! It’s Alice!”
“Alice?” Grace found a towel and wrapped it around her head, flipping it back as she stood up. “You’re telling tales again, aren’t you? Just like you did that time when you said Dick Aspinwall was at the door asking to take me skating.”
“I’m not!” Dorothy had the grace to look sheepish. “She’s really here!”
“She wasn’t supposed to get here till the day after tomorrow!”
“She said she wanted to surprise you. Come on! She’s dying to see you!”
Grace looked hard at her sister. She appeared sincere… Well, the only way she’d find out was to at least peek over the banister. “Mrs. Lee isn’t here too, is she?” She hastily tipped the pail of dye down the toilet. Dared she flush it? No; Alice—if she was actually here—would hear it and tease her.
“No, just Alice. Come on!” Dorothy was practically dancing a jig. “She don’t care if you’re wearing your old wrapper. She told me so.”
“Never mind—I’m coming up,” an amused voice called from the stairs. “Where are you?”
“In here!” Dorothy danced back out into the hall, gesticulating. Grace grabbed the bottle of hair dye and plunged it into her pocket. The last thing she needed was Alice demanding to know why she was dyeing her hair—as close as they were, there were some things that had to be kept secret—like the fact that Alice’s best friend was a dryad.
“Grace Boisvert! You are still in your robe. Are you just getting up? It must have been quite a party last night. Wish I’d been there.” Alice appeared, dressed for travel in a canvas coat and hat with veil, in the bathroom doorway.
“No parties, goose. I was, er, washing my hair. When did you get here? Why didn’t you tell me you were coming today?” Grace stepped forward to give her a quick hug. “I’m so glad you’re here!”
Alice Lee Roosevelt was her dearest friend. She and Grace had known each other since they were babies and had been inseparable during Alice’s twice-yearly long visits to her maternal grandparents, Mr. and Mrs. Lee, who lived next door. They wrote each other copious letters when Alice was away, and always picked right up where they’d left off when she arrived at the Lees’.
“Must have slipped my mind,” Alice said apologetically, but her eyes glinted with mischief. “I say, it’s not as old and tatty as mine,” she added, holding Grace at arm’s length and scrutinizing her robe.
“I’ll bet you’ve got one made out of ermine and velvet, now that your papa’s the vice- president!” Dorothy said from behind them, sounding awestruck.
“We don’t go in for ermine and velvet robes in America, though I must say I wouldn’t mind it if we did.” Alice sighed. “By George, it’s good to be back, if only for a few minutes, anyway. Life has been a whirlwind—you’ve no idea!”
“Lucky dog. I wish mine were. Let’s go to my room.” Grace tucked her arm in Alice’s and propelled her down the hall. Dorothy seemed ready to follow after them, but a high, imperious voice from the other end of the hall called, “Dorothée!” She pouted, but didn’t dare disobey. When Grand-mère called, you went.
Once in her room, Grace shut the door behind them. “Very well—what’s been so whirlwind-ish?” she demanded. “Have you already been to Washington? Your last letter was from New York.”
Alice threw herself onto Grace’s four-poster bed, careless of her modish hat and duster coat and the ruffled dotted swiss counterpane. “No Washington yet—Mother doesn’t want to bring the children there until the fall. I’ll miss New York terribly—I had such fun there this winter with Aunt Bye!—but Washington will be fun too if I have any say in the matter.” She threw her hand across her brow in mock distress. “I came here directly from the station—well, I stopped to kiss Grandmother first—but I’ve so much to tell you, I don’t know where to start.”
“Why don’t you start with telling me why you’re here two days early and what you meant by ‘if only for a few minutes?’” Grace settled in the low slipper chair by the fireplace grate. This was how they always sat—Alice on her bed, she on the chair. “Aren’t you staying for a regular visit this time?”
Alice rolled onto her side, reaching up with one hand to pull out her hatpin and remove her large hat, now rather crushed. “Almost. I’ve got plans, and you’re going to be part of them.”
“What kind of plans?” Grace knew better than to say an unreserved yes to any of Alice’s plans. Some of her previous ones had earned them scoldings and being sent to bed without supper—not that she regretted any of them, except maybe for the time they’d hidden the chicken in Mrs. Lee’s parlor organ. But Alice had never shirked her share of their punishments.
“Wait till you hear!” Alice sat up. “Grace, how old are we?”
“Seventeen, of course. What does that—”
“Yes, seventeen—and you’ve already graduated from high school. Which means we’re old enough to—to do things!”
“Like what things?”
“Like—oh…” Alice pretended to examine her fingernails. “Like go to Newport this summer? I’ve been invited to spend a few weeks there by a friend of my aunt’s and I said yes, so long as I could bring you with me.”
“Newport!” Grace sat up straighter in her chair. Newport, Rhode Island, was the summer playground of people like the Astors and the Vanderbilts—the richest people in America. Not to mention the most fashionable ones. And she and Alice had been invited to go there— “Oh my goodness, when? I thought you’d be going to Oyster Bay?”
“Mother and the children are there—that doesn’t mean I must be too. Believe me, Mother and Father don’t miss me in the least.” She grimaced; Grace knew that her relationship with her stepmother was not an easy one. “Sometimes I think they’re glad when I come up here. Oh, Grace, we’ll have such fun! Think of the parties…and the boys!”
Grace had been thinking of them, but she wasn’t sure what to think. Once, boys had simply been playmates—annoying ones at times who taunted because they could run races and climb trees without being encumbered by skirts, but also nice ones who pulled sleds back up snowy hills and reached for apples on higher branches. But that had changed, especially since she’d finished school and started wearing her hair up. Some of them had begun calling her Miss Boisvert instead of Grace and looking at her in a way that made Grand-mère scowl. Would the Newport boys do that too?
“What about boys?” she asked. “Do you like them?”
“They’re more interesting than girls, a lot of the time,” Alice retorted, then grinned. “Present company excluded, of course. They’re fascinating creatures. My cousin Helen and I made a study of them last winter. You can get them to do the most ridiculous things if you want, and they don’t even realize they’re being ridiculous. Haven’t you tried that yet?”
Grace was saved from answering by a knock, followed by Mum poking her head around the door. “May I?” she asked. “When I heard who was here—”
Alice rose immediately and went to her. “It’s lovely to see you, Mrs. Boisvert.”
Mum came into the room and solemnly shook her outstretched hand, then laughed and folded her into a hug. “Just because you’re a young lady doesn’t mean you’re allowed to be formal with me, miss! You’re looking very smart, unlike my daughter wearing the wrapper I thought she’d gotten rid of months ago. Your grandmother said you’d be here today.”
“Why am I always the last to know anything?” Grace couldn’t help muttering crossly. And anyway, Mum knew this was her favorite robe.
“You didn’t ask,” Alice said over her shoulder, then turned back to Mum, wearing her most winsome smile. “Mrs. Boisvert, the most exciting thing’s happened! A dear friend of my aunt Corinne has invited Grace and me to visit her in Newport this summer. Do say you’ll let Grace come with me!”
Mum raised an eyebrow the tiniest bit. “It was hospitable of her to include Grace, but if I haven’t met her, I’m afraid—”
“Oh, but you have! It’s Mrs. George Rennell, and she says you met two years ago at some luncheon or something. She’s writing to you directly—you should get her letter any moment now.” She turned her you-know-you-can’t-say-no-to-me look on Mum again.
Mum’s smile didn’t waver, but Grace could feel her doubt. “Yes, I do remember her, of course, but I’m not sure that Grace is ready for Newport.”
“Of course she’s ready. I am,” Alice said, with the air of having stated an incontrovertible truth.
Mum had the presence of mind not to laugh. “Perhaps, but I worry that she’d find it intimidating. We don’t move in such exalted social circles.”
“Neither do I,” Alice promptly replied. “But your family and mine are far older and more distinguished than the Astors and the Vanderbilts, and they know it. Please, Mrs. Boisvert? Grace, don’t you want to go?”
Grace just managed not to shout yes! at the top of her voice. “May I please go, Mum? I’m sure Mrs. Rennell will take good care of us.” There was no way that she was going to miss Newport.
Mum looked at her doubtfully, but merely said, “Hmm. Well, I should like to discuss it with Grace’s father before I say anything more…and I shall have to receive Mrs. Rennell’s letter too.”
Alice beamed. “Oh, thank you, Mrs. Boisvert! I know we’ll have a lovely time! Won’t we, Grace?”
Mum blinked. “I didn’t say—”
“And then won’t you let Grace come to the Adirondacks with us? Mother is taking us rooms at the Tahawus Club in August before we go to Washington. It will be awfully wholesome, and you’re definitely acquainted with Mother, aren’t you?” She smiled sweetly.
Mum shook her head, but was smiling as she turned toward the door. “I’ll leave you two to your plotting.” She paused in the doorway and looked at Alice. “Your grandmother once said that you could sell boots to a python. I’m beginning to understand what she meant.”
As the door clicked shut behind her, Alice began to mime a victory dance. Grace jumped up and clapped her hand over her mouth before she could start whooping. “She didn’t exactly say yes, in case you didn’t notice,” she murmured.
Alice pushed her hand away. “Don’t worry. We’ll convince her.” She hesitated. “You do want to go, don’t you?”
“More than anything,” Grace said fiercely.
* * *
After Alice left—she really had only paused to peck Mrs. Lee on the cheek before coming to Grace’s, and had to go back to properly greet her grandparents—Grace returned to the bathroom to check her hair and think about Alice’s invitation.
Mum’s assumption that she “wasn’t ready” to go to Newport with Alice nettled her. She was so ready she could taste it. She unwrapped the towel from around her head and peered at her hairline in the mirror. Ha. No more green. So much for Grand-mère’s old-fashioned ways of—
“Your Alice is gone?”
Grace jumped and half turned, clutching the towel. “Grand-mère! I didn’t hear you come in.”
“Hmm. That is because I haven’t yet.” Grand-mère stepped across the threshold into the bathroom and took the towel from Grace. “You did your hair, I see.” She wore a high-necked black silk dress and a heavy gold chain looped at her waist to hold her watch. The chain was festooned with her collection of charms and fobs. Grace wished she knew how she could walk so silently with all those jangling bits of gold on her.
“Er…yes. I didn’t want to disturb you, but it was past time to do it,” she said.
Grand-mère took her chin between her forefinger and thumb and tilted her face left and right. “You must start doing your eyebrows as well. A few drops, diluted with water, can be brushed on when you dye your hair. Every other time will probably be sufficient.”
“I will next time, Grand-mère.”
She nodded, her green-brown hazel eyes still fixed on Grace’s face. “You are growing up, granddaughter.”
Grace had never been able to figure out how to respond to statements like that. Yes, she was growing up. But she had been for a while now, in case Grand-mère hadn’t noticed. After all, her hair had been growing in green since she was fourteen.
But Grand-mère didn’t seem to need an answer. “It will be time to send you to France soon, I am thinking.”
“France?” Grace jerked her chin from Grand-mère’s hand.
“But of course. It is what we have always planned. You shall go to a finishing school in Paris in the autumn to improve your French and give you a little polish, and then you will be introduced to the dryad families in society there.”
Grace stared at her. “Mum hasn’t said anything about this!”
“No?” Grand-mère frowned. “Hmm. Well, perhaps I should not say anything more.”
Talking back to Grand-mère was never done. Almost never. “When was this decided? Why hasn’t anyone mentioned it to me?”
Grand-mère’s frown grew more pronounced. “Chut! You should have known it would happen. Your dear mother is from one of the few pure-blooded families on this side of the ocean, and there are no male offspring in her family of your generation. If we are to find you a husband, it will have to be in France. In Bretagne, preferably, where you will be able to find a forest worthy of you.”
It suddenly felt as if all the air had left the room. Grace was barely starting to think about boys as something other than playmates, and here was Grand-mère talking about sending her to Brittany to marry one come fall and to settle into her forest. She was so concerned with preserving their family’s lineage—their bloodline as she called it, which made Grace think of prize cattle.
“Grand-mère, I don’t… I’m only seventeen! Why must I be in such a hurry? I’ve been thinking about applying to Wellesley or Radcliffe for next spring, once I’m eighteen—not getting married! And anyway, there must be other dryad families here…and in Italy and Austria and England and Germany—”
“Do not speak to me of Germany.” Grand-mère nearly spat the word, and Grace winced. She should have known better than to mention Germany, which had humiliated France thirty years before in the Franco-Prussian War during which Grand-père had been killed. “We do not know any German families…but what is this?” Before Grace could stop her, Grand-mère had reached deftly into the pocket of her robe and extracted the bottle of Mademoiselle’s Secret. She held it up and read the label. “‘The Most Natural Tints Beyond Those Provided by Mother Nature.’ Hmm.”
Oh, no. Could this go any more wrong? “I can explain—”
But Grand-mère was already unstoppering the bottle. She sniffed it suspiciously, then poured a drop onto her finger and touched it to her tongue. “Ah. Black walnut extract,” she said with satisfaction. “How clever to put it in a bottle, but I am sure it was very expensive. You are better off using my dye.” She handed the bottle back to Grace. “You should get dressed. I believe your mother is having Mrs. Heath over to tea.” She kissed Grace, then sailed out of the bathroom.
Grace looked at the bottle in her hand, then set it down on the counter with perhaps a little more force than was necessary. But she didn’t care if it broke. Black walnut extract…she should have known. There was no escaping what she was, was there? Not even the smallest attempt to be her own person—finding her own way to conceal her green hair—could succeed.
Thousands of years ago, being a dryad had meant something. They had cared for the forests and kept them safe from both men and the stranger, nonhuman things that roamed the world. And even now, being a dryad could still be fun. Grace liked being able to talk to trees, to feel their slow thoughts and listen to their long songs and heal their illnesses. She liked that she could make plants do what she told them—it had been so tempting to make Mum’s roses grow in blue, which she thought would be much prettier than some insipid pale pink, but she certainly would have caught it from her parents and Grand-mère. She liked that she could influence the weather—it never rained when the Boisverts held a garden party—and that she never got lost because she always knew where the sun was.
But she wondered now, at the dawn of the twentieth century, if their dryad magic mattered anymore. Why bother maintaining Grand-mère’s precious bloodlines and keeping themselves apart, in this age of telephones and automobiles? She had to escape Grand-mère and the box she was trying to put her into, had to convince Mum and Papa to let her go to Newport.
Copyright ©Marissa Doyle 2019