Julianna's Secret by Lydia Anne Klima by Lydia Anne Klima - Read Online

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Julianna's Secret - Lydia Anne Klima

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PART ONE

Chapter One

Prairie Grove, Illinois, October 1906

The paperboy stopped short and grinned. Two pretty girls stepped out of the dark turreted mansion, their manly neckties flapped in the wind. Long skirts, tightly belted at their waists, showed off their amazing figures. The Italian beauty had dark brown hair that flowed down her back in tresses. The taller girl with the light brown hair approached him smiling, her eyes full of mischief.

What’s your name, boy?

N-n-n-nils.

Nils what?

Hansen.

I’m Mary Edwards. This is my best friend Julianna DeSantis. Blue eyes sparkling, Mary shoved her face before him. Is it a good job, Nils?

Yes miss.

Mary fingered his collar, then spoke in a playful manner. What will you do with all the money you make? Buy us presents?

To Nils’ delight, Mary had the clearest blue eyes he’d ever seen, but his tongue cleaved to the roof of his mouth.

Mary continued in her playful tone, "Maybe we’ll buy you something. Of course, we don’t want to make the other girls jealous. You do have a sweetheart, don’t you?"

No miss.

Why not?

I dunno.

Mary wore a slow grin. Tell you what: When you grow up, you can be our prince. Then you can rescue us.

R-r-r-rescue you? he asked, not understanding.

From Julianna’s house. It looks like a castle, doesn’t it? Mary faced the French Châteauesque mansion with the turrets and widow’s walk.

Feeling the blood rush to his face, Nils threw a paper on the front porch, then ran away as fast as he could.

The girls’ laughter chased him down the street. They spoke in unison: Come back, Prince Nils! We love you!

After their charming encounter with the paperboy, Mary Edwards and Julianna DeSantis strolled down Maple Avenue beneath a canopy of crimson oaks and amber maples. They passed Queen Anne-style houses and Italianate homes—monuments to the ever-increasing wealth of Prairie Grove. It was a conservative village, full of churches and narrow minds. Nothing exciting ever happened here. If you wanted excitement, you had to move to Chicago, some twenty-five miles away.

Bending down, Julianna plucked a leaf off the sidewalk and twirled it beneath her chin. A pause. How old is Nils?

I don’t know. Eight, nine.

Any relation to Lars Hansen?

They’re brothers. Mary smirked. Lars walks around with supreme arrogance. He should be knocked down a peg or two. Then Mary’s mind digressed to better things. Tom O’Neil took me for a ride in his buggy last night.

What happened?

Nothing. That’s the problem. A frustrated sigh. I don’t get it, Julie. I’d let Tom have his way with me, but he won’t touch me.

"Mary."

"I know it’s wrong, but I don’t care. Tom’s gorgeous and kind and talented, but he’s...different."

You shouldn’t get involved with him. He works for your mom.

That’s never stopped me before.

Julianna looked away and dreamed a little. What I wouldn’t give to kiss Tom O’Neil.

You like him?

Well yes, but I’m not like you, Mary. I wouldn’t know what to say.

No, you’re not like me. You’re beautiful. Beautiful girls don’t have to say anything.

Julianna laughed, thankful for Mary’s optimism.

When they reached the Pink Unicorn Ice Cream Parlor, Mary gave Julianna a heartfelt hug. I’m sorry, Julie. I know I talk foolish. It’s just...

Yes?

Mary gazed at the false-fronted buildings on Main Street and saw women in long dresses with long sleeves, baring no flesh. Why does everyone look the same? So respectable? And why do they look down at people who are different? Mary faced Julianna and shrugged. Whatever I’m looking for, I won’t find here.

"What are you looking for?"

I don’t know. A haunting silence; then Mary burst out laughing. Don’t mind me, Julie. I’m crazy.

The friends laughed and embraced, then laughed and embraced again. Mary promised to go horseback riding on Saturday. Then she disappeared in the ice cream parlor, where her numerous friends greeted her as if they hadn’t seen Mary in years.

Afterward, Julianna went in Conley’s General Store to buy some penny candy. The store had a tin-pressed ceiling and a fire engine red coffee grinder with twelve inch wheels. As she approached the counter, she saw her reflection in the glass casement below.

The image belonged to a woman, not a girl. Her breasts had swelled this summer, pushing the seams of her bodice, and her buttock had also thickened. Boys gave her wolf whistles. Men stared at her. Julianna hated the attention. Growing up was difficult. Religion and politics didn’t make sense, and there was so much to learn. Mrs. Gunderson said women should free themselves from male oppression. To be free, a woman must work to support herself; getting the vote was the first step in that direction.

When Julianna heard shouting, she ran to the store window and saw a gang of boys across the street. They formed a circle around some innocent. They kicked him and shouted, Come rescue me, Prince! Kiss me, my prince! Hug me, my prince!

Her heart racing, Julianna hoisted her skirt and ran across the brick street, dodging wagons and motorcars.

At the circle of boys, she peeled one boy away after another until they scattered in all directions, leaving Nils Hansen lying on the boardwalk with a bloody nose and mouth.

She extended a hand to help him, but he jumped up and said, It’s your fault!

Before she could respond, he ran away.

Her eyes filled, then overflowed. Pedestrians stared at her as if she were to blame.

Oh well, she never meant to hurt the boy. His bruises would heal. His ego was another matter.

Back home, Julianna went on the wrap-around porch and sat on the swing near the coach entrance.

Why was life so hard to figure out? Mary Edwards was the most popular girl in town, but she wasn’t satisfied.

Why wasn’t Mary satisfied? Mrs. Edwards lets her do whatever she wants, but Mary calls her mother a nuisance, a religious fanatic.

As for Julianna’s father, he was strict and old-fashioned. Young men weren’t allowed to call, but they weren’t interested in her. They were interested in Mary, so what difference did it make?

Then there was Nils Hansen. He had white hair and rosy cheeks. Someday he would be tall and strapping like his brothers, but Nils was shy and often stammered. People said he didn’t have a brain in his head, but this wasn’t true. Nils would speak, if he felt safe.

Julianna could relate to him. Some people disliked her because she didn’t talk a lot. She was tired of people saying, You never talk. And why should she? She was an introvert in a world full of extroverts. She liked her own company, or the company of her books. That’s why she liked Mary Edwards. Mary talked enough for both of them. Mary always knew what to say.

I wish I was Mary! I wish I had confidence!

Hearing footsteps, she looked up and saw Nils Hansen standing in the coach entrance, his shirt and knickers torn and dirty. He stared at her, not knowing what to say.

Extending a hand, she beckoned him forward.

Nils shuffled toward her, eyes full of apprehension.

When he reached her, she grasped his shoulders and said, I’m sorry those boys harassed you. They’re only jealous. She adjusted his cap, then pushed the platinum bangs out of his eyes. From now on, she said, I want you to hold your head up.

W-w-w-why?

Because you’re special. Do you know that?

He stared at her in wonderment. Her sensuous green eyes practically melted him.

Then she got an idea. I want you to read to me in the afternoons. Then we can try to correct your stammering. Do you agree?

Yes miss.

His cupid smile touched her heart. She leaned over to kiss him, when a shadow fell over them.

A well-built young man stood before them in a peaked cap and tight denims. He gave them a baleful glare.

Lars Hansen was Nils’ older brother, star of the Lincoln High football team. Everyone liked him because he won many games. Now he shoved Nils and said, I heard about your fight, sissy.

Turning crimson, Nils fled down the brick street.

Julianna shot up. Leave him alone!

My little sisters fight better than he does.

He was outnumbered.

How would you know?

I know a fool when I see one.

Not wanting to argue, she breezed past Lars and went in the house. She was having a good day. She wouldn’t let Lars spoil it, so she went upstairs to see her mother.

Mrs. DeSantis was in her bedroom, resting on a fainting couch. Julianna kissed her and sat down.

Her mother’s eyes narrowed. I heard shouting.

Lars Hansen was looking for his brother.

"Lars Hansen." Her mother stopped to think. Is he that good-looking boy on the football team?

Yes; and doesn’t he know it.

Well, you’re not so bad looking yourself. Her mother winked at her, but Julianna laughed it off and said, It doesn’t feel like me, Momma. When I look in a mirror, it’s like someone else is looking back.

"Well, it is you."

I dislike the attention.

Enjoy it while you can. It doesn’t last. Mrs. DeSantis looked at a point beyond and smiled. I felt the same way growing up. Now I’d have to pay people to notice me.

Oh Momma. You’re pretty.

Thank you, darling.

An hour later, the DeSantises sat down to dinner. The built-in sideboard had enough crystal and silver to show off their wealth without boasting about it.

After Mrs. DeSantis cut her meat and arranged it perfectly on her plate, she faced her husband and said, Lars Hansen was here this afternoon. He’s captain of the football team.

A dark, brooding man, DeSantis stabbed two pieces of beef with his fork and scoffed, College presidents are disbanding football teams. More than a hundred players have been killed. In my opinion, the new rules won’t make football safer. The sport should be abolished.

Mrs. DeSantis smiled at Julianna. Maybe Lars will call again.

He didn’t call for me, Momma. He doesn’t know I exist.

Are you sure?

Yes. He’d be a good match for Mary Edwards though. She’s popular.

So I’ve heard. Her mother stopped her fork before her mouth. I understand the Edwards are boarding a drifter.

Julianna nodded. He was badly beaten. Mrs. Edwards nursed him back to health, then gave him a job.

Mrs. DeSantis smiled, well pleased. That’s just like Daisy Edwards, always thinking of others. Then Mrs. DeSantis thought of practical matters. Have they checked out his background? Does he have a record?

The sheriff says he’s clean.

DeSantis frowned. Mrs. Edwards should send him away. Mary’s fast.

She is not, Julianna retorted. She’s smart and beautiful, and she invited me to a women’s suffrage meeting.

No daughter of mine will associate with a bunch of meddling women.

Julianna bit her tongue. If she said more, there’d be trouble.

DeSantis shot daggers at them. After today, I never want to hear about football or women’s suffrage again. He finished his glass of burgundy, then opened his pocket watch. It was a quarter to seven. He had a village council meeting, so he gave them scathing looks and left.

When Julianna heard the front door close, she cupped her chin in a hand and sulked. Her father was a prominent attorney, and a member of the village council and the Race Improvement Society, but he ignored her.

Julianna faced her mother. Mary’s my best friend, Momma. Why doesn’t Papa like her?

He’s a little judgmental.

I wish he’d notice me.

What do you mean?

I don’t drink alcohol or fool around with boys. I’m a good girl, but he doesn’t care.

Of course he cares. Mrs. DeSantis sipped her cup of coffee with contentment. Your father has a lot on his mind. Practicing law is stressful.

I’d be more confident if he praised me. I only want his approval.

He loves you, darling. Why, just the other day, he was saying how pretty you’ve become.

He said that?

Yes. Mrs. DeSantis sighed. If truth be told, I don’t think he likes you growing up.

Why?

You remind him he’s getting older.

Oh Momma. Julianna laughed, but after a moment the smile dropped from her face. She loved her father. He was a respected member of the community, but he had a dark side. He kept dirty books and pictures in his desk. She wouldn’t dare confront him about this, or he would explode. Still, the question remained: Why did he have those dirty books and pictures? Momma’s pretty. She doesn’t deserve this.

Then Julianna remembered her encounter with Lars Hansen this afternoon and a surge of electricity ran down her spine.

Though Lars was obnoxious, he was really good-looking, and since her father ignored her, maybe someone else would notice her.

Someone as good-looking as Lars Hansen.

And you know what?

She just might attend a suffrage meeting.

Chapter Two

Mrs. DeSantis entered the dark turreted mansion and set her large-crowned hat on the hall tree. She smoothed down her dark hair and pinned loose strands back in her pompadour. Her single-breasted suit with the high-neck collar and tightly fitted waist made her look like a stern schoolmarm, but nothing could be further from the truth. When Mrs. DeSantis smiled, heads turned. Aside from looks, she was a submissive wife. A peacemaker. A doting mother. She defied her husband in only one matter. She attended women’s suffrage meetings across town in Lance Holden’s yellow limestone mansion. If Julian found out, he’d hit the roof, but this was something she had to do.

Suddenly, her Swedish maid, entered the reception hall and curtsied. There’s someone to see you, mum: Doctor Bruns Kesler.

When did he arrive?

Ten minutes ago.

Thanks Inga.

Mrs. DeSantis smiled. Then she drew deep breaths to calm herself. After she straightened her jacket, she entered the parlor and found a tall lanky man standing by the marble fireplace, his hands clasped behind his back.

Doctor Kesler was a distinguished-looking man. His charcoal gray frock coat matched the color of his hair and pencil line mustache, but he had a coldness about him she detested. He was a professor of surgery at the University of Chicago and of criminal anthropology at the Kent School of Law. A few months ago he saved her life by performing an emergency appendectomy. She came forward to shake his hand.

Good afternoon, Doctor. Thanks for coming.

No trouble at all. He kissed her hand and bowed, clicking his heels together.

After she sat down, Doctor Kesler fanned out his coattails and sat across from her in a stiff, rigid manner. His penetrating eyes and deep voice made her nervous, so she spoke about the business at hand.

I saw my family physician and believe you made a mistake.

I don’t make mistakes, madam. He laughed it off, but she wasn’t laughing. She said, I think my operation was unnecessary.

Then why would I perform it?

I don’t know. She wrung her hands, feeling nauseated. How stupid do they think I am? I know they’re hiding something. Something evil. She tried to stay calm. What kind of research do you do, Doctor?

My work would bore you.

On the contrary, you have a distinguished career, but you haven’t been upfront with me.

Why?

You performed an appendectomy; and yet, I had no pain. No fever. No vomiting. No loss of appetite.

His eyes cut her like little knives. Have you discussed this with your family physician?

I have.

Be careful, Mrs. DeSantis. I believe in our cause. In fact, our ideas are gaining popularity.

What cause?

I’ve said enough. I must go. He shot up and left before she asked more questions, but Mrs. DeSantis wouldn’t be dismissed so easily. She went in her husband’s study and locked the door. She never had appendicitis, for she had none of the symptoms that warranted an operation.

Then why did a six-inch scar run across her abdomen?

Well, the answers were in this room, the place where Julian spent most of his time.

She opened her husband’s desk and shoved aside his dirty books and pictures. She caught Julian reading once: a big grin split his face. He threw his book at her and warned her never to enter his study again, but Julian wasn’t home, so she inspected his files until she found what she wanted, but the news was shocking, so absolutely inhumane, she broke out in a cold sweat and almost fainted.

Now she understood the reason for Julian’s late night meetings: those tedious affairs with America’s most brilliant minds. According to Doctor Kesler, their ideas were gaining popularity, but if they weren’t stopped, they could harm—No, possibly murder millions of people. Well, Mrs. DeSantis couldn’t stop them all, but she could even the score with Julian.

With that in mind, she wrote Julian a letter, saying his ideas would send him to hell. Then she wrote out a check to the women’s suffrage society and had a servant deliver it.

She thought about sending Julian’s dirty books and pictures to Father Kilwarren, but she didn’t want her priest viewing such trash, so she burned the material. Then she left Julian a note saying she mailed his books to Mrs. Gunderson at the suffrage society.

If Julian cancelled her check, Mrs. Gunderson would proclaim him a fraud.

Having done that, Mrs. DeSantis poured herself five glasses of lemonade until she got the pouring just right. Then she went in the barn and searched the shelves of paints and fertilizers.

Shoving cans and bottles aside, she read each label until she found the one with the skull and crossbones.

Here it was: Julian’s punishment. The resulting scandal would embarrass Julian; tarnish his career, but what a small price to pay for what he did to her.

With trembling hands, she opened the can and poured the powder in her lemonade. Then she held up the glass to a stream of light passing through the opaque windows.

If she did this, she’d spend more time in Purgatory, but Julian would have Masses said in her behalf. Who knows? She might get out early.

Always one for neatness, she inspected the stalls of the barn and chose the cleanest one. Then she drank the lemonade, asking God to forgive her.

* *

One week later, DeSantis stood in the parlor of the turreted mansion listening to Father Kilwarren recite long repetitive prayers before a casket draped with calla lilies. He wondered if Mrs. Gunderson had received his books and pictures. She hadn’t said anything. She was full of pity and sympathetic smiles. Of course if she confronted him, he would deny everything and say someone framed him. Mrs. Gunderson would believe him. Her husband was mayor. DeSantis gave him big contributions.

Now his house was full of friends and neighbors who came to commiserate. The relatives from California had arrived yesterday and had taken over his bedrooms. They practically ate him out of house and home, but his biggest headache came from Mrs. Gunderson and her suffragettes. At least fifty women invaded his home. Mrs. Gunderson thanked him for Glorianna’s generous contribution, saying she’d been a model suffragette.

A model suffragette? DeSantis wanted to explode. What else hasn’t Glorianna told me? This was her revenge for what he did to her. She wanted to destroy his reputation and make him a laughing stock. At least he could stop making excuses about her illness, but this wasn’t the end of it. In a couple weeks, there would be a coroner’s inquest. Then everything would come out in