The Palace Guard
The Palace Guard
THE BURST OF WELL-BRED applause dwindled to a spattering of claps from the young cellist's more dedicated relatives, then was drowned altogether in the scraping of chairs. The tourists moved toward the exit at the rear of the concert hall. The cognoscenti pressed forward into the Tintoretto Room, to partake of white wine and cheese, say nice things to the musicians, and dodge candle drippings from Madam Eugenia Wilkins's famous cinquecento chandeliers.
Mr. Max Bittersohn, distinguished young art expert, seized the elbow of his remarkably attractive young landlady, Mrs. Sarah Kelling of the Beacon Hill Kellings. "Let's get the hell out of this," he hissed. "That kid who's been slaughtering Boccherini has more sisters and cousins and aunts than a chorus line from Pinafore."
Sarah, who had been brought up in a sterner school, demurred. "We mustn't leave without at least speaking to your friend Mr. Fieringer. You know he's always heartbroken if you don't say something about his latest genius."
"What's to say? Okay, then, come out on the balcony till the crowd thins a little."
"I did think the pianist managed beautifully, all things considered."
"Yes, old Bernie's a damn fine musician still, on the rare occasions when he can find his way to the piano. I wonder how Nick managed to keep him sober for the occasion."
"Heavens, what an impresario must go through," Sarah rested her dainty forearms on the carved marble balustrade and looked down at the enclosed courtyard, now massed with spring flowers for Eastertide or, as in Mr. Bittersohn's case, Passover. "Look, isn't this fantastic?"
On January 1, 1903, Eugenia Callista Wilkins, widow of a railroad baron, had attended the opening of Fenway Court, better known to Boston as Mrs. Jack Gardner's Palace. Seething with what she told herself was scorn, she vowed to show Mrs. Jack how it should have been done. She had then followed the other woman's example by sailing for Europe with her own tame art expert in tow, loaded a Cunarder's hold with an even bigger and more ill-assorted collection of art treasures true and false, come home and built an even more pretentious palazzo on the picturesque banks of the romantic Muddy River, and there arranged her purchases in even wilder confusion.
Mrs. Wilkins had explained to the dumbfounded architect that her indoor garden must have a waterfall full three stories high to plash down over a series of marble basins into a lily pool stocked with exotic fishes. She would have even more flower beds than Mrs. Jack, to be kept ever blooming with stock from even more greenhouses. She would have mosaic walks alleged to have been spirited away during the restoration of Herculaneum and she would have real, live white peacocks fanning their spectacular tails hither and yon as the spirit moved them.
In practice, the peacocks were more apt to be molting, committing nuisances on the mosaics, pecking fretfully at the ankles of visitors, or coming down with various avian ailments and having to be rushed to the Angell Memorial Hospital for treatment. Despite their perverse behavior, though, Mrs. Wilkins's palazzo was generally conceded to be quite a place, even for Boston.
The Kellings, being among Old Boston's richest, most prolific, and sometimes most respected families, had attended the 1911 opening in droves. It was upon that historic occasion that a then Mrs. Alexander Kelling had observed with that tact and courtesy for which the Kellings were noted that the place looked less like an Italian palazzo than a Babylonian bordello. Some other wit had immediately started calling Mrs. Wilkins the Madam, and the name stuck. Making the best of a bad business, Eugenia Callista had thenceforth ordered her visiting cards engraved "Madam Wilkins" but she had never left one on a Kelling.
Even after she died and bequeathed her estate to the city as a museum, there