THE PALACE HOTEL occupied an entire city block of San Francisco real estate. It was claimed to be the largest hotel anywhere, though to be exact about the square mileage would debase it of its beauty: this was something of art, not science. Violet exited the carriage in a state of plain awe, despite her better nature. Her eyes climbed the balconies: seven stories, adorned with Roman columns and little candelabras of electric light, crowned by a latticework of iron and glass.
If she wanted, she could unmake all this – think back to the San Francisco she was born in, brown and dust, all the worse for the troubles with her father, but she liked to think of how the city was now. San Francisco had changed for the better, and so, Violet was pleased to report, had she. This was the Violet of today: a porter carrying her baggage, her chin held high, striding down the promenade of the Palace Hotel flanked by white marble sidewalks and tropical gardens and fountains, wearing a dress of fine blue silk made for her, and her hand on her husband’s arm. “Mr and Mrs George T. Bertolacci,” announced her husband to the attaché, and yes, oh yes, so perfect.
Nineteen, and she was the first of the Whaley daughters to be married. Tied for first, anyway: she was married the same day as her older sister Amelia, wed to their cousin John. Their father seemed to prefer Violet’s match (as did Violet) and showed his happiness with wonderful gifts, despite the hard times. He had given George money for the honeymoon at the Palace Hotel, in a suite surely costing upwards of seven dollars, and to buy first class tickets on the new Overland train, bound for Chicago via Omaha. Then onward to New York, where George was a civil servant and where their new life would be. On the carriage journey north from San Diego after the wedding she had watched George sleep while her heart spun in circles until it was dizzy, thinking: he is handsome, he is witty, he is overpowering, he is mine…
And then Violet woke up alone the next day. George was gone, and with him their suitcases, her pocket book, all her jewellery, even – she checked, and her stomach clutched – the wedding ring from her finger. Panicked, she dressed herself with as much haste as was possible when fitting a corset and bustle, and paying no consideration to her hair or face, fled from the hotel out onto Montgomery Street. She ran, insofar as she could run, east on Market, pushing past pedestrians and failing to keep pace with the streetcars. She did not remember San Francisco very well but had recited this route to George innumerable times for fear he would forget. The Overland departed from Oakland Long Wharf, which meant that if George had gone ahead he would have gone by ferry – and perhaps she would find him at the bay, unless he was at the platform already, waiting for the train’s approach, announced by a distant whistle and the rumble of something heavy underneath his feet…
No, Violet found George in line for the ferry, and out of breath, she doubled over beside him, the corset forcing her to take short, repeated gasps; she looked hysterical.
“Oh, Vi,” he noticed her, “sorry about all of this, you know. It wasn’t anything personal.” Some sleepy-eyed saloon girl hung off his arm.
“I don’t… who is this?” Violet managed. “Who is this person? Is she wearing my wedding ring?”
“Look, don’t get your back up. It’s over now and nobody’s hurt, so why don’t you bounce?”
Her heart pounded against her chest. “I want you to put a stop to this right away,” her eyes choking with hot tears, “do the clear thing and come back with me this minute.”
“Now she’s boo-hooing,” muttered the saloon girl.
George procured the ferry tickets for the attendant. “Mr and Mrs George T. Bertolacci, for the Overland from Oakland.”
“I’m Mrs George Bertolacci,” Violet insisted. The attendant looked back and forth between the two women. “Pardon me, ma’am, what’s your name?” he asked George’s girl.
“Oh, my name is Violet Bertolacci, sir.”
The attendant gave half a shrug. “Miss, you’d better leave,” he told Violet. “I’d rather not involve the police.” George tipped his hat to the man, and without sparing even a second’s hesitation or a quick glance over the shoulder, strolled up the gangplank and laughed. Violet, tear-stricken, watched from the wharf as the ferry chugged into choppy motion along the water.
What happened after that Violet would not completely remember. In a daze, she turned back onto Market and then started walking south in the direction of home. She walked for so long that her feet were bloodied and raw and when she stopped inside a saloon to take off her shoes she was yelled at. Standing outside by the horses she tore strips of silk from her dress and bound them around the soles of her feet. Later, she would recall that she had been in the backs of wagons, maybe beside animals or groceries, and abandoned her bustle on the side of the road. She would recall sitting in the backs of coaches or carriages, and the impertinent attentions of other passengers. She lost the corset somewhere around… well, she did not know, but she remembered that powerful exhale of breath, and the racking sobs that followed, attracting sympathetic glances from strangers. She remembered how low her hair hung down her back and how filthy it must have been. She remembered begging for water and how just a drop remade the texture of her lips. She remembered not seeing water again until, from very far away, glimpses of the Pacific Ocean, which meant that somehow and after however many days she was back in San Diego, and she walked the dusty roads past familiar houses and cemeteries until she felt the boards of the porch creak underneath her bloodied feet and she crumpled into a tiny heap outside her parents’ house. And this was where her troubles began.
Her parents, of course, were filled with concern for her well being. While she recuperated under the direction of their physician, her parents attended to her every comfort and assured her that she was safe and well, yet the worry was plain on their faces and in good time Violet began to understand the deeper reasons for it. Much about her return to San Diego had been judged as scandalous. It was entirely unladylike to appear in town as she had: unexpected, without a chaperone and missing her husband, dressed in shredded finery stained with mud and blood, stumbling speechless down the streets as if in an opiated stupor. It was vulgar in the extreme, and Violet knew it. The Herald, whose editor was an old enemy of her father’s from his days on the City board of trustees, wrote gleefully that Thomas Whaley’s second daughter had made a complete spectacle of herself. Reportedly, her debasement had gravely offended some high-ranking members of Old Town society, all of whom opted to be quoted in the paper anonymously. Violet’s father told her that all anonymous quotations were inventions, and Violet thought this was utterly irrelevant.
In the passage of time, members of society both high and low would put their names to their disapproval of Violet, so it had been fairly irrelevant. The Whaley household was well-known for its evening parties and receptions, and the Whaley women well-known as great hostesses. After Violet’s reappearance, these events generated more excuses than attendees. On the fourth of July, the Whaleys traditionally staged a boys and girls’ dance at the house, preceded by a town picnic in Rose’s Canyon. That year, instead, Violet sat alone in the girls’ bedroom reading notes from Old Town families all professing regret that “prior engagements” – what coincidence! – would prevent them from attending. The gall of these people who had never been blessed with competing engagements in their entire lives.
Violet was invited to one dance that year: the birthday party of Emily Balfour, not a friend. Their mothers were close, though, and who was to say what use Violet’s friends were anyway, they had not spoken much since it happened, and those relations which had once been so free and collegial were now congealed and smelling of blood…
“Oh,” said Emily Balfour at the doorstep.
Emily sat Violet in the parlor and excused herself, never to return. Emily did not speak to Violet again. The guests seemed to avoid Violet’s gaze, except for Hudson Ames – oh, sweet, simple Hudson Ames who had once told her, “I’m desperately in love with you – please don’t marry that idiot” – whose eyes met hers across the parlor and instantly darted away as though he had been caught spying upon a woman in her bedroom. Violet, to her shame, waited over an hour before getting up to leave.
Months later, Violet proposed to obtain a divorce, and that was met with resistance. Violet asked why she should not be entitled to divorce from a husband who stole from her and left her to die in a foreign city, and the courthouse clerk did not argue with this but commented that it was dishonorable to seek divorce. Upon which Violet fantasized of stabbing him and tearing his fat flesh to ribbons, though she supposed that too might be considered dishonorable.
“They hate me, they really truly hate me and I don’t understand,” she said to her mother one night in the kitchen. “Oh, Lord… have they always thought of me like this? Have they always thought of me as this awful… and I was just the last one to realize it? I was happy and smiling like an idiot and all the time they all thought I was disgraceful…” Her mother hushed her and held Violet close while she wept into her shoulder. “I don’t know, angel,” she said.
The family physician took an interest in Violet’s melancholia, which along with her disinterest in attending events or even getting out of bed, he considered symptomatic of some kind of mental aberration. Her parents protested the seriousness of the diagnosis but could not otherwise explain Violet’s moody, distant comportment, which had gripped her for months. “I am worthless,” she had taken to saying, or “I’m a horrible person.” No, you’re not, Lillie would say, before departing the house for a county fair or ball to which Violet was unwelcome. One afternoon Violet jumped into a well.
The cistern was behind the house. Her father ran outside after hearing Violet’s screams for help; he found her hanging by her fingertips from the edge, her bare feet waving around over the darkness. Violet was lifted to safety, and nobody in the family ever remarked upon the strange episode of Violet in the well.
That night Violet remembered arriving in San Francisco with George and how the proprietor at the Palace Hotel had treated her. He had received her so casually, and with such respect, as if there were no reason why Violet should not be a rich, married woman staying in the grandest suite in the grandest hotel in the world, and deferred to appropriately… Didn’t that idea make so much sense then, and now she was a woman who had thrown herself into a well in hopes of ending her life, and nobody commented on that or found it particularly unusual. Was this just expected of her, now? Was this the person she was?
Without society to occupy her Violet spent more time alone in the house, reading novels and poetry in her father’s library. She was taken with one particular passage from a collection of Thomas Hood, which she meticulously reproduced in her copybook:
The bleak wind of March
Made her tremble and shiver;
But not the dark arch,
Or the black flowing river:
Mad from life’s history,
Glad to death’s mystery,
Swift to be hurl’d—
Out of the world!
Yes, that’s it, thought Violet: how true a representation. And yet how irresponsible, she thought it was, to write and publish something that nakedly emotional when it could be read by any sort of person in goodness knows what sort of state. An observation that did not prevent her from attempting to write poetry of her own:
There is a place
Where we will never go.
…on a sheet of notepaper that she promptly tore out of the copybook and threw away.
Her mother remarked that Violet’s activities had turned “unwholesome,” a comment she made not knowing about the poetry but knowing about Violet’s increasingly common trips to the cemetery across the street, by herself, often for hours at a time. If she wasn’t an odd pariah in San Diego already, Violet figured, she certainly would be now, though if she were not a pariah in the first place she would not have sought solace in the cemetery, and so on and so on: it was too tedious to think deeply about.
El Campo Santo Cemetery was a small tract of land, of loose brown soil and patches of grass here and there, whose few internments were marked with modest crosses of white pine, or red brick arranged flat on the ground. Violet sat in the shadow of a knotted oak tree that worked in tandem with her bonnet to keep her safe from the sun, and read novels or the names on the grave markers. She could see her house from there, across the dusty expanse.
Campo Santo was not for good people. It was a place to bury criminals, or strangers, and the lack of compassion afforded those souls by the living festered there like a wound. It was not a place for Violet Bertolacci (Violet Whaley, she corrected herself with a modicum of pride,) living or dead. Violet already knew where she was to be buried, thanks to her parents: expensive and stately Mount Hope, seven miles away, built so that settlers like her father could be remembered at the appropriate level. There was already a Whaley family plot there, as of yet unoccupied. Violet supposed they all thought that their money would buy them dignity in death – like they would be buried in Mount Hope looking beautiful and virginal in their finest dress, and Mount Hope would keep them looking them that way, perfectly preserved forever like the Pharaohs…
At Campo Santo Violet visited the graves of forgotten degenerates (she presumed) like James Robinson, who was hanged in 1852 on the land where her house now stood. Her father had been present at the hanging, but what she knew of James Robinson she’d heard from other people: her father would not discuss it. Robinson, so the story went, was a petty crook, a flagrant horse thief wanted in Canada, hanged in San Diego for stealing a rowboat. Surely nobody would miss a rowboat, he must have thought – but as it happened, the rowboat Robinson stole belonged to the city of San Diego, and it was, somehow, the only one they owned. The embarrassed local militia descended on Robinson with full force, reclaimed their rowboat and sentenced him to death. Robinson was hanged on a makeshift gallows so short that his toes grazed the ground for the whole hour it took him to die. Then there was the grave of Henry Rippey, a wandering drunk trampled by a horse. The story on Rippey went that he had been chased out of San Francisco in the 1860s when, in a drunken episode, he kicked a stray dog down a flight of stairs. The dog happened to be a local legend, a ratter famed for his heroic deeds and much beloved by credulous San Franciscans. How odd and vulgar the circumstances of their deaths, thought Violet, and I know nothing else about them. Were their lives consistently so queer, or, like hers, refocused by one unplanned moment of absurdity? Will that be how I am remembered, as the girl so stupid she could not see she was giving her heart and herself to a despicable con man? A con man – how trite! She wanted to laugh: she had married a swindler who nabbed her jewels and cackled as he walked away with a whore on his arm. No master criminal for Violet, no, was she so ugly and so stupid that she could be taken by any cliché thug – who deceived her, ripped her up, used her up, made her worthless –
That night at the Whaley family dinner table, celebrations were in order. Lillie was engaged, having chosen from a pool of well-to-do, interchangeable suitors. A party was called for. Their mother ran ahead of herself describing the lavish sorts of parties they once threw at the house, and who would be invited and what food would there be, before remembering Violet’s situation and adjusting her expectations accordingly. Violet hunched over her uneaten supper feeling like she had been hollowed out, as her mother hemmed and hawed about how Violet could still be involved somehow. She could lend a hand, perhaps, with the duties of penning the invitation cards, directing the waiters to the tablecloths and napkins, and ensuring that the ladies’ room would be fully stocked with hairpins and pincushions. Not, of course, how it used to be, when Violet was a girl of fifteen or sixteen in a brand new dress and a ribbon in her hair who would welcome the guests with a polite smile and inquire about their day as she showed them to the dressing room. When everyone was in the drawing room it was her job to flit from one conversation to another like a firefly, and then, always, every night, when the clock struck ten her father would announce her and she would sit down at the grand piano, smoothing her dress, and the whole room would stop to hear her play. And she shut her eyes gently and let her hands sing across the keys, and one time she opened them and saw her father dabbing away a tear from his eye and he was so proud and her heart swelled and she brought herself to tears. I am not that person anymore, she told herself: I do not make people proud. Her mother was listing everyone they must invite: the Balfours, the Ameses, the Roses, the Cassidys, the Hamiltons – and these, Violet thought, are different people from me now. I am a miserable fool of a person. I don’t belong with these people anymore. I am shameful, and bad, and when you say my name you should say it in the same breath as the name of James Robinson, or Henry Rippey, or, God help me, George Bertolacci. God help me, I am Mrs George T. Bertolacci. So do not bury me in Mount Hope, bury me in Campo Santo –
The next morning, Violet left her room at about six o’clock. Trying not to wake anybody in the house, she entered her father’s bureau and removed his revolver from its box. She wandered outside into the yard with the gun hanging in her hand. Violet sat down in the outdoor water closet, thinking it may as well be here as anywhere else, and shot herself where she hoped her heart was.