My Last Empress: A Novel
Publisher: Crown Publishing
Category: Fiction – Romance – Historical
Format: Hardcover, 320 pages
On Sale: October 2, 2012
Price: HC $25.00 | Ebook $12.95
— Kirkus, starred review
— Janet Fitch, author of the Oprah’s Book Club novel White Oleander
A sweeping story of passion and obsession, set against the upheavals of 19th-century imperial China Samuel Pickens, a blue blood from Connecticut’s Gold Coast, narrates this tale of obsession, lust, and lost love from his home within the walls of the Forbidden City. In his youth, Pickens had fallen passionately in love with his headmaster’s daughter, Annabelle. She had been raised in China and was worldly beyond her years. Though they were just teenagers, their romance quickly blossomed until tragically, only one month after meeting, Annabelle was dead. Initially, Pickens is devastated by the loss, but within days, he believes that Annabelle’s ghost is visiting him, and she will not rest until she is returned to China.
Pickens becomes the benefactor of a number of lucky coincidences—unless, of course, it is Annabelle who is pulling the strings—that allow him to travel to the Orient. There, he works for the effete and powerless emperor, who keeps a concubine, Qiu Rong, who looks shockingly like dear Annabelle. Pickens cannot hide his desire, and it is requited, but the palace is filled with gossips and thieves at every turn. Once their love is discovered, Qiu Rong and Pickens must escape, but the only one who can help them is a nearby warlord, who has a shocking story of his own to reveal.
I am old, decayed, and fermented. I am a dead tree with a rotten cavity within which grows a stem of flowerâ€” my last
Sitting on the veranda, I feel my bones aching and my heart ready to dip down the horizon like the aging sun. I am alone now with In-In, the palace servant from my days tutoring the last emperor. He is as faithful as the thoughts of my Annabelle.
Age makes simple all urges. Only the essence of life remains; the rest matters not at all. Daily I rise to do one small task: write down what transpired from that initial spark to the fi nal fl ame, patching pebbles of my past into the riverbed of the present.
For what reason, you may ask? The answer is simple. So you will know that I have not lived a fruitless life but an immortal one.
I relive on paper the bygone days, savoring their glory the same way a shadow vies for the sun. This is a story of love and inevitability. I was nothing until Annabelle came along one fateful summer day.
â€śYour ink is ready, master,â€ť In-In calls in his soft voice, placing the inkwell before me. Ink gleams like the encroaching night. Carefully I dip the tip of my brush at the edge of the well, then let the brush glide over the porous scroll.
From my trembling hand bleeds forth the passion that I thought had died all those years ago. Yet still, I am forever burning, forever wanting.
There was no evidence or early trace of my penchant for the young, the tender, or the ghostly. Every branch of my family tree has been upright and shadowless, even in the afternoon slanting sun. Father worked at the family law firm of Pickens, Pickens & Davis, and he summered on his white yacht off the Connecticut coast with his white-shoed friends who doted over me, my fatherâ€™s only heir, a navysuited blinking boy with blond eyelashes. Early memories are of standing in a ring of cigar smoke puffed from the admiring mouths of my fatherâ€™s friends, and the manly breath of whiskey amidst slurred New England syllables. Mother, a buxom matriarch, was the fruit of an even taller tree, the linear descendant of Elihu Yale, the founder of the famed college that bore his name.
It was never debated what the path of my own life would be: Phillips Andover followed by Yale, then days at the family law firm and evenings at the club. I too would drink whiskey and puff cigars and ogle the help while my bride, a thin blond wisp from a similarly upstanding family, would look the other way. It was the path that my father had followed and his father before him, and who was I to veer from it?
It started so innocently while I was still at prep school, culminating in my maiden encounter with one ripened maiden.
Mrs. D was the barren wife of the stiff- necked librarian. She idled her days away in the New England sun, devouring forbidden romance novels while her poodle, a big- snouted pooch, licked between her stockinged thighs. She had the dazed look of disillusion, her hazel eyes full of anguish and unknowable pain, which the entire campus unanimously blamed on her childless state.
Mr. D had the look of a seedless man, pale and thin, without a boisterous moustache or prickly chest hair, as seen on occasion during his reluctant and awkward participation in the faculty cricket games. Just as surely, gossip posited that she could be the culprit, for she had the docility of a guilty mute. They both could be conspirators in the childless game, each as barren as the other, or they both could be endowed with potential to bear, but the fire of lust had never been lit or lit rightly in their cold, separate bedrooms. It was a longstanding uncurriculumed subject that every Phillipian dabbled in during the last drowsy minutes before sleep stole our souls after the lights were shut. I felt a certain stir whenever the word barren was mentioned in the same breath with the sullen Mrs. D.
Her hair, not always neat, had an occasional strand falling over the bridge of her nose, fringing her often parted lips. Her hips were wide with the sacrificial openness of a fertile woman. How could anyone blame her for anything?
My heart still thumps at the memory of the first touch of her trembling hand.
It was my first Thanksgiving spent at school, away from the snowfall of Connecticut. The silence of the campus was deafening. Mr. D had gone to the mountain to hunt deer, leaving Mrs. D all alone in the company of an empty house. My duty that afternoon was to dust the small collection of toy yachts, canvas sails, and bamboo masts encased in the draped library of Mr. Dâ€™s home. I arrived to find Mrs. D just awoken from a nap, lying starfished on a couch, book at her bosom, legs apart. The pooch wasnâ€™t around, though its stench hung thin in the air.
Mrs. D greeted me, cupping my face with her soft hands. I melted like a snowman in the sun, burying my face in the valley of her bosom. Her breasts were firm, her buttocks soft. She swayed to the crazed crawling of my fi ngers, her breath whiskied like the summered memory of my fatherâ€™s white yacht. In a blur of scenesâ€”birds flying, windowpanes refl ecting, pooch sniffing somewhere in the corner of the house, my mast tentingâ€”she whispered her dearing words, and I felt the warmth of her hand hungering over my sword. Silky stockings ripped and I plowed blindly in the mud of her.
Oh, that long ago Thanksgiving Day, that woe of my youth.
We mated a few more times under the veil of Mr. Dâ€™s suspicion till we could bear the suspense no moreâ€”I faced expulsion, and she the foreseeable loss of Mr. Dâ€™s vocation, but the memory of her came to form the basis of my youthful arousal. Parted lips, loose strands of hair hanging over the face, an empty house, a cold sky laden with the angst of oncoming snow, and my heart would ache as it ached that dreary day, and my groins would burn with the flame of that afternoon.
I often plotted trespassing the ivied residence of Mrs. D again, impinging upon her shaded vulnerability and unearthing her muffled screams that she stifled under bookish breath. We came close only one last time at a pompous school event whereby all wives of the academic faculty were demanded at the angular dining table for the benefactors of the school, the elder Pickens included. I sat three heads and a table corner from Mrs. D and watched her chew her London broil. I smiled at her with code of our love, but she avoided my gaze.
A ball ensued. Old chaps of the school borrowed the young wives of others to hold in their arms, and I got to whirl her around the room in the guise of a waltz. She stayed silent with sullen face and begged me to stop halfway around the ballroom. Leaning on my shoulder with the world swaying on tiptoes, she uttered the three most horrifying words: â€śI am pregnant!â€ť
I nearly let her fall out of my hand. I held my breath for the next three long and dying seconds until I felt a tap on my shoulder and heard the congenial Mr. D whisper, â€śLet me take over.â€ť
Was it relief or burden that I felt? I could not tellâ€”the ring of her words still echoed in my ear. I swiped two tall glasses of some liquor from the dark corner of the ballroom, downed them, and rushed back to my dormitory.
This must be my punishment from God: fathering a bundle of sin. What would she do with him or her, the little me?
After a long week of fearing, the campus was suddenly abuzz with news of Mr. Dâ€™s departure. Mrs. Dâ€™s pregnancy had fulfilled a longstanding clause in his late uncleâ€™s will, a liquor dealer from Boston, bequeathing him, the only living heir of the Ds, a minority stake in a brewery on the condition that D produce an heir of his own blood and flesh. The Ds rushed off rather unceremoniously, and I have lived in cloudy ambiguity ever since.
For weeks after their departure, I was haunted by nightmares; each time, I woke up sweating and panting. Headmaster Herbert had called Father twice with mild compliments of my sporting verve but expressed concern over my general well-being. My eyes were circled with dark rims, and I was dispirited in religious assembly. A school nurse, after checking my pulse, scraped the moss from my tongue, tapped my echoing ribs with her knowing but misguided knuckles, and declared me a slight case of depression that a home visit and some sun should dispel. But it was the uninduced confession from another virile classmate of mine, one Samuel Polk III, the son of a mean-spirited financier, that cleared my guilt in toto.
One insipid Sunday afternoon after I had scorched my throat with much hymnal singing, Sam Polk strolled with me along a patch of lawn near the school chapel that afforded a slice of Mrs. Dâ€™s former garden. The dreary day produced
a dreary chat, and soon the New York boy was regaling me with his ventures with Lower East Side foreign whores whom he described as not only good with their craft but with their tongues.
â€śGot it, Pickens?â€ť He chuckled at his own wit. â€śBut you know, Pickens. I had more fun and less trouble right there behind those hedges.â€ť He pointed his toe at Mrs. Dâ€™s garden.
â€śYou what?â€ť I sputtered.
â€śI had my way three times with that barren Mrs. D. Only made two trips to her house; the other time, I had her behind the hedge before it was trimmed and the leaves cleared.â€ť
I nearly choked the boy with my own hands.
I was let out of the jail of burden and breathed the fresh air of a sonless youth, but in that freedom I yearned for herâ€”the hedge, the garden, the white house, the possibility that she would forever gaze at her childâ€™s face and think of me.