The few mourners assembled somberly to mark Edith’s passing. A few women, dressed in vintage St. John and well worn Ferragamos, dotted the pews throughout the church. St. Swithen’s altar was awash with Persian lilies and pink roses and the floral perfume collided with the smell of moth balls. An elderly gentleman sat teary eyed as he recalled spectacular hands at bridge and Edith’s attentiveness to his sickly wife. “When Eleanor passes” he said to no one in particular, “I would have had my eye on that girl.”
The assistant rector delivered Edith’s brief eulogy mentioning her childhood in Kent. Eyebrows rose at the reference to a former husband but the catalogue of her charitable causes and honorary memberships was impressive. And of course, Edith’s great love of the theater was noted. Heads nodded throughout the congregation. “She used our tickets you know,” passed by several lips.
“She will be missed” was prevailing, impersonal sentiment shared, as Edith was remembered by the wives. One mourner paused on the church steps, pulling on her gloves, “Herbert’s Tiger roommate comes at the weekend. He’s a dreadful old bore.” she sniffed, “I had counted on Edith to liven up the party.”
No one was quite sure when Edith arrived in Princeton. It seemed as though she had always been a part of Princeton’s old moneyed set. True, she hadn’t attended the right schools or any schools for that matter. She had no money, new or old, but did possess many old money refinements. Her clipped British accent, silk shirtwaists, and pearls allowed her seamless access at the annual St. Swithen’s Club tea. She carried an air of elegance and mystery, occasionally mentioning some minor royalty in passing, always with hushed, intimate tones. And she told the most amusing stories of exclusive haunts on private Caribbean islands. Yet she was unassuming, even invisible as the situation dictated.
She had a passing knowledge of good art and antique silver and was a wicked fourth at bridge. That alone guaranteed her regular inclusion in the best of small dinner parties and invitations to serve on charitable committees where she always functioned as the committee secretary. Old Princeton money appreciated free talent.
The women tolerated her presence. They knew she was simply hovering, biding her time for the right elderly widower to emerge from mourning. But their husbands found her delightfully attentive with her sweet smile and diminutive bird like fluttering. She was always an available “extra” at dinner parties.
It was at one of those dinner parties that Edith mentioned her love of McCarter Theater. As the house lights lowered and the performance began, Edith could simply float away, losing herself to an imaginary world of her own making. Her carefully perfected masque of refinement and delicacy slipped and she relaxed to revel in both bawdy laughter and somber tragedy.
“But you must use our tickets!” her hostess offered. And since the first rule of old money was never to discuss money, Edith quickly became the beneficiary of an endless stream of unwanted, complimentary seats. She saw some shows many times, always from different vantage points in the theater. She especially enjoyed the preview nights when buses from retirement communities pulled in to dislodge rows of white haired widows with walkers and canes. Edith knew many and would be surrounded in the lobby as she welcomed old acquaintances with a little wave and acknowledging nod. “So lovely to see you dear.” She began to think of the theater as her own personal amusement, like a munificent, albeit it minor, royal entertaining at Le Petit Trianon.
She couldn’t remember why she had begun. One evening, as she took her seat, her Ferragamo grazed the purse of the woman seated next to her. There it was, one of those oversized Hermes pouches, compartments stuffed and gaping. The woman was looking away, engrossed in conversation. As the theater darkened, Edith bent forward and suddenly slipped her hand into the bag. She felt something soft and quickly pulled back, placing it under her neatly folded coat. A tingle of electricity ran down Edith’s spine. She had no idea what she had retrieved but the realization that she had invaded someone’s private space unnoticed made it difficult to sit still. She felt childlike, deliciously guilty, shot though with excitement. She was giddy in anticipation of examining her prize.
As she left the performance, she exchanged pleasantries with her victim and hurried up the aisle. She waited until she arrived home. With the door locked behind her she pulled a single lavender cashmere glove from her pocket. This is perfect! The woman will simply think she has mislaid it. Never suspect. And then Edith wrapped the glove in a bit of tissue, noting the date, the performance and the seat number. She bagged it in a small plastic sandwich wrapper and placed it carefully in her kitchen cupboard.
Over the months, more bags appeared, all filled with small treasures from women’s purses. A grandchild’s valentine, dry cleaner tickets, a half used lipstick. Weary bits of other lives carried about, then forgotten. She never took any object of value. Credit cards or keys were left undisturbed lest she inconvenience her victim. She was amazed at how refined her tactile sense became as she quickly determined what to take, like some blindfolded contestant on a game show.
At home, she posted the theater seating chart on her kitchen cabinet door, marking off the locations from which she made her grabs. There were 1,400 seats in the big theater and years of excitement ahead for Edith!
Oh, there was the occasional failure. Once she grabbed a melting chocolate bar. Another time she gasped audibly as she plunged her hand into an open container of hot coffee. She avoided the endless pieces of gum and hard candies enclosed in their wrappers as well as plastic bags with indeterminable, squishy contents.
Edith considered expanding her territory. The grocery store was tempting. Carts rolled through the aisles, momentarily unattended, with purses sitting open. Edith had once seen a film about shoplifters who stole by covering objects with false bottomed shopping bags. She envisioned herself whisking away an entire purse, covered with one of those recycling grocery bags everyone used. But the fluorescent store lights glared and green coated store employees constantly prowled the aisles, offering help. No, the theater would remain her special playground.
It was during a performance of Moliere’s “The Misanthrope” in Row C Seat 13 Left that Edith’s trouble began. She had arrived a bit late and didn’t have time to arrange her coat or steel her composure as the curtain rose. So she waited until just before the final curtain to dive into that evening’s purse. She covered her sudden movement with a muffled cough while her victim vigorously applauded the cast. As she snatched a small, stiff envelope, a sour sensation enveloped her stomach. Something about this felt wrong, but, as the lights brightened there was no time to return her loot.
At home, hands trembling, she steadied herself with a glass of sherry. She carefully slit open the envelope. Inside, wrapped in tissue, were two diamond studs, enormous pear shaped earrings of significant weight. Edith was devastated. She fell back in her wing chair, her hand at her throat as she drew several short, rapid breaths. Her innocent game had suddenly escalated to a level that terrified! Perhaps, they were fakes. Who, she demanded, would carry real diamonds in their purse to the theater? She thought about the woman seated next to her. Not particularly well dressed, overweight with an unhealthy sallow skin and bad makeup. No, these earbobs could not be real. Edith’s breathing slowed, her equilibrium returned. But although convinced they were mere imitations, she didn’t catalog the earrings with her other finds and left them in plain sight on her dressing table.
She had every good intention of disposing of them, perhaps pushing them through the book return slot at the library or leaving them on the sink in the theater’s ladies loo. They sat on her dressing table winking at her playfully. Even at night, as she lay in bed, the occasional car headlight flashed blue behind them. They were, she knew, a symbol of an entitled life, well beyond her capacity.
The following Saturday, the day of the Princeton Garden Tour, she succumbed to vanity as she carefully brushed her hair forward over her bejeweled earlobes. When she relieved Hilda Wainwright at her docent’s position, Hilda brushed her hand aside Edith’s cheek and remarked, “why Edith, darling, you’ve changed your hair.” Edith blushed, feeling hot, deep crimson spread across her cheeks as Hilda stared at the earrings.
By nightfall it was the talk of Princeton. Someone had gifted Edith a very expensive bauble! But Edith’s generous benefactor remained a mystery.
On Sunday morning, small groups of women lingered on the lawn of St. Swithen’s fiercely engaged in conversation, nodding agreement or vigorously shaking their heads. Still others returned home to calmly review their husband’s bank statements and credit card receipts.
It was several days later that Edith was found slumped on her chaise lounge, her hand to her throat, pearls scattered in her lap across the prior evening’s Playbill . A faint smudge of blood stained one earlobe and a droplet stained the shoulder of her pink paisley patterned shirtwaist.
At first, the Princeton police suspected a heart attack. But there was no mistaking the ligature marks around Edith’s neck. A single pane of glass had been removed from the back door. Nothing in the house was taken or disturbed. It had all the earmarks of a mob hit.
The police were stymied by the odd collection of small plastic bags in the kitchen cabinets, but none provided a clue to the murder. Edith’s death remains an unsolved crime that haunts Princeton to this day. But then Edith herself had been a mystery, commiserated Princeton society as they called security firms to upgrade their alarm systems.
“Old girl deserved better,” huffed Herbert Wainwright as he watched the hearse drive slowly away from the church parking lot. “Damn waste of a fine bridge hand.”
Kales lives in Lawrenceville and has had a subscription to McCarter for many years. A doctoral candidate in humanities at Drew University, she is currently at work on a novel based on the life of French artist Berthe Morisot.