“Do I get any hints?” Alice asked, a touch of whininess in her voice.
Marcie smiled as she tapped coordinates into the control room’s glass console. “Go get dressed. That all the hint you’re getting.”
“Damn it,” Alice said under her breath as she headed toward the hotel bedroom where Marcie had assembled and hung her outfit behind the rice paper dressing screen. “You know I hate surprises.”
“You love surprises,” Marcie called after her. “You hate waiting.”
“Same difference,” Alice called back. There was a pause followed by a rustling of fabric. “Holy cow. Is this a bustle?”
Marcie smiled again, but said nothing. She double-checked their entry location, making sure that everything was in order.
“Are we going to meet Charles Dickens?” Alice asked excitedly, peaking around the screen. “Or maybe Queen Victoria?”
Finding everything in order for the next leg of their trip, Marcie too headed for the bedroom to get attired. “I’m not saying anything.” She replied, pulling her own dress out of the walk-in closet, and hung it on a hook above the open French doors.
“You’re impossible,” Alice grunted from behind the screen. “How in the world did women go to the toilet wearing all these petticoats?”
“They used the buddy system,” Marcie replied fluffing her multiplus green and white ruffled skirt. “Ever wonder why women are always going to the bathroom together? It’s a throw back from when we actually needed help peeing. Let me know when you’re ready for the corset.”
“I’m ready. Lace me up,” Alice said appearing from behind the screen. She had managed to don the bustle and two petticoats that fell to the floor, forcing her to walk on tiptoes. Holding the corset to her chest, she turned to allow Marcie to cinch her up. “Not too tight. I rather enjoy breathing.”
About an hour later both women stood in their completed outfits. They looked every bit the picture of Victorian high fashion with their high bustles and formfitting, basque bodices. Each skirt sported a slight train.
Marcie and Alice stood admiring their reflections in the six by six foot mirror in their suite’s washroom. Marcie’s bodice was a spring green and white striped like her skirt, while Alice’s was a shade of blue to rival the sky.
Having long hair, Marcie had curled her auburn tresses into tight ringlets and piled them atop her head, securing it with countless pins. Alice on the other hand kept her blond hair cropped in a raucous pixie cut, and now sported a wig with a partial up due and long curly tail at the nape, which she fixed sweetly over her shoulder. Marcie had topped her coif with a dark brown bowler while Alice had accented her blond hairpiece with a tiny version of a top hat embellished with pheasant feathers and lace.
“Wow,” Alice sighed. “We look like we just stepped out of one of Renoir’s paintings.” Then with a touch of apprehension, “Do you think we went overboard?”
“Absolutely not,” Marcie said, and started for the control room. “I read through Florence Hartley’s The Ladies' Book of Etiquette, and Manual of Politeness. These dresses are perfect for the function we’re attending.”
Alice trailed behind her, “I just want to make sure we aren’t overdressed.”
Marcie stood looking at a row of monitors displaying a series of black and white images of people in attire similar to their own. “You always worry about sticking out, but we haven’t yet.”
Placing her hand on her shapely hips, Alice replied mischievously, “I do seem to remember a bit of an issue in Alexandra.”
“That wasn’t my fault,” Marcie replied turning to face Alice’s smirk, “and you know it. It was a glitch with my toga.” She turned back to the monitors. “One would think people had never seen breasts before.”
Alice threw back her head and cackled. “I don’t think it was the breasts that had them all gawking. I’m not sure folks from 48BCE know what to do with pierced nipples and a tattoo of a naked women lying spread eagle on a unicorn.”
Looking at Alice’s reflection in the corner of one of the monitors, Marcie smirked back, “It’s a very tasteful tattoo. Plus, I never hear you complain.”
“Me complain about a beautiful naked woman?” Alice asked as she slid her hands around Marci’s tightly corseted waist, hugging her from behind. “That tattoo is one of the reasons I married you.”
Marcie pivoted her side-buttoned boots to face Alice, and planted a long, sweet kiss on her lovely bride’s pouty lips. “In that case, that tattoo was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.” She glanced up at the clock over the Exit door. “4:30. Okay, we need to get a move on. Grab your wrap. It’s going to be cold out.”
With a squeal of excitement, Alice released Marcie, and quickly scampered away to fetch the last of her items.
“Do you have your contacts in? I wouldn’t want to miss any photo opportunities,” Marcie called after her.
“Yep, they're in and working perfectly,” Alice said reappearing in the control room, wrap in hand. She winked, activating the micro camera in the contact lenses she wore. A moment later a high definition image of Marci’s small frame appeared on one of the monitors in the control room and was immediately saved to a hard drive.
“Perfect,” Marcie said giving Alice one last kiss. She turned the knob of the Exit door, and they walked out onto the icy and bustling street.
Tall brick buildings lined the snow-crusted sidewalk. Shoppers with their evening parcels and bags rushed past on their way home to fix dinner. Marcie gently steered the gawking Alice forward towards their destination.
“Where are we?” Alice asked out of the corner of her mouth so no one else would hear. A tall, dapper gentleman in a dark suit tipped his hat to her and smiled as they passed one another. Alice nodded back and smiled shyly.
Tilting her head towards Alice, Marcie answered, ‘‘The Queen of the West’.”
“What?” Alice asked frowning, stopping short. “You brought me to Cincinnati, as in Cincinnati, Ohio on our honeymoon? Ohio? Really? After I took you to the original globe theater and Pompeii. Do I need to remind you that we saw Shakespeare perform Much Ado About Nothing? Shakespeare.”
Marcie grabbed her angry wife by the elbow, and pulled her into a doorway away from the busy shoppers beginning to take interest in them.
“Would you lower your voice? People are starting to stare.”
Alice closed her eyes and took a deep breath. “I’m sorry. I’m just a little surprised that’s all.”
“Trust me love. In a few minutes it will all make sense.”
Nodding slightly, Alice allowed herself to be led back into the flow of fast moving shoppers. When they got to the Vine Street, Marcie steered them down it.
“Vine Street?” Alice asked frowning. She stopped to examine her surroundings more closely, causing people to swerve to keep from running into her.
Marcie smiled excitedly, “You are going to pee yourself in a minute.”
A look of recognition spread itself across Alice’s face, banishing the confusion that had knitted her brow together. “You’re kidding?” she asked the crisp February air. In response, it indifferently carried her misty words away on a chilled breeze.
Alice took two steps towards the curb paying no mind to her fellow pedestrians as she walked into their parcel-laden paths. A heavy-set woman in a severe black walking dress and bonnet grumbled under her breath as Alice’s elbow caught the ribbon on her hatbox containing a new, and just as severe, bonnet.
Following her besotted wife’s gaze to the building she now stared at in complete awe, Marcie could see why Alice was so enamored with what lay inside.
Without so much as a backwards glance, or a cursory check to see if the street was clear of carriages, Alice dumbly stepped into the street, and beelined over to the glowing bulbs that brightly announced PUBLIC LIBRARY.
Marcie quickly trotted after Alice, gracefully dodging passers-by, carriages, and the odd mound of horse manure. When she caught up to Alice, she was standing in front of the library, looking up as if she could hardly believe what she was seeing.
Within the stone exterior, the watchful busts of Benjamin Frankly, William Shakespeare, and John Milton wisely guarded three pairs of oaken-framed glass doors. An arched flourish of stained glass topped each pair of doors, catching the light from inside in a dazzling mosaic of color on the cold winter evening.
“I can’t believe it. The Old Cincinnati Library.” Alice turned to look at Marcie, tears in her eyes. “You’re right. I just peed a little.” She gave Marcie a tight hug.
Returning the embrace, Marcie whispered, “Don’t forget to wink.”
When they released one another, Marcie asked smiling, “Shall we go inside?” She gestured with a gloved hand towards the doorman politely holding the right center door for them. Alice nodded mutely and stepped inside the library’s vestibule.
A crowd of people stood sipping champagne and dressed in frills and hats, mingling in the vestibule’s warm air. A young man dressed in black coat with tails came round and offered Alice and Marcie fluted glasses containing a golden bubbly liquid. They each took a libation from the tray, and toasted before taking a sip.
Marveling at their surrounds, the pair danced a slow circle, taking in the vaulted ceiling, Corinthian pillars, black and white checkered floor, and lovely cream colored marble which bedecked one of the most beautiful libraries on earth.
“I can see how this was suppose to be an opera house,” Marcie said, taking another sip of her champagne. “It’s absolutely stunning.”
“If you think this is grand, wait until you see the main hall,” Alice replied her excitement barely contained. “Why are all these people here? Why is there champagne? Not that I’m complaining.”
Marcie nodded towards a finely dress man with a dashing beard who stood at the top of the marble stairs leading to a darkened room tied off from onlookers with a red velvet ribbon.
As Alice looked up, the man began to speak, quieting the din of conversations.
“Ladies and Gentlemen, I would like to welcome you all to the unveiling of the Main Hall of the Cincinnati Public Library.” A small round of polite applause filled the vestibule accompanied by a murmur of excited chatting.
Alice’s face was a gleam with excitement as she leaned in close to Marcie and whispered, “That’s George Hunt Pendleton. He gave a speech at the opening of the main hall. In 1864 Pendleton was the democratic vice presidential nominee. He’s rather handsome.” She added taking a sip of her champagne.
“Down girl,” Marcie replied teasingly.
“I believe you will find Mr. James McLaughlin’s architectural talents not only enlightening, but awe inspiring as well,” Pendleton motioned to a tall, slightly balding man with a massive beard sideburn combination. McLaughlin gave a slight bow, and allowed the next set of applause to wash over him. “And of course, one cannot have a library without its librarian,” Pendleton motioned to a tall, well built man in his mid thirties with sandy blond hair and luminous blue eyes. Hardly the image one thinks of when libraries are the topic of conversation. “Mr. William F. Pool. Take a bow sir. You’ve earned it.”
Pool’s cheeks turned a lovely hue of pink as he acquiesced and lowered his head in humility at the unexpected attention.
“You can have Pendleton,” Marcie whispered to Alice. “I’m calling Pool for my team. He’s adorable.”
“Never has a gateway to knowledge been constructed as such. The Cincinnati Library is truly one of a kind. A diamond in the rough if you will. However, my rambling on about this beautiful work of art cannot do it justice, so without further ado, we shall cut the ribbon.” Pendleton invited both McLaughlin and Pool to the top of the stairs where the three of them took a ridiculously oversized pair of scissors and cut the ribbon.
From somewhere unseen, the lights were flipped on to illuminate the main hall, and with the decorum of the Victorian age, the crowd slowly made their way up the marble steps to the much awaited unveiling of the new wing of the library.
As she passed by the ribbon hanging limply from the doorframe, Alice grabbed it and yanked, releasing it from its mooring. She stealthily wound it into a tight ball, and stuffed it into the small purse dangling from her wrist.
“What are you doing?” Marcie asked aghast that her archivist wife would steal a piece of history.
“I used to manage the Earth Library archives on the Mars colony. The ribbons aren’t in the collection, so no one will miss them,” Alice whispered defensively. “I need to have something tangible to remember this. They’re going to tear it down in 80 years.”
“Maybe there’s no ribbon in the collection because you stole it,” Marcie whispered back. She was about to go on about time travel paradoxes when she stepped into the main hall, and the extravagance took her breath away.
The checkerboard marble floor from the vestibule continued into the main hall. Several long tables, illuminated by electric lamps, preceded a number of wooden bookshelves aligned neatly in rows. The showstopper however, was what lay above.
The entrance of the hall opened immediately to a four-story atrium topped with a massive glass skylight. Stars twinkled down upon the main hall’s first visitors as they gasped and gawked at the beauty they were witnessing. Along the perimeter of the hall stood cast-iron shelving five-tiers high housing more than two hundred thousand books. Tight spiral staircases connected each tier in an elegant dance of iron and air. Each iron alcove terminus was topped with a unique stained glass window. A beautiful folate motif was carved into the wooden end cap at the end of each massive cast-iron shelve. Slender Corinthian pillars sprang from the second story balcony’s edge and ran to the skylight, making the imposing heft of the building look effortless.
Marcie and Alice turned a slow circle as they tried to take the whole scene in.
“Pictures really don’t do it justice,” Marcie murmured, thinking back to all the times Alice had wrangled her into looking at old glass plate negatives of the library.
“They do not,” Alice replied, winking to activate her contacts. “At least we’ll have some color images now.”
“Would you mind terribly if I went off to explore a bit?” Alice asked with a guilty look on her face.
Smiling, Marcie shook her head. “Of course not. It’s your surprise. Enjoy. But we have to back at the room in two hours.”
Alice gave Marcie a quick hug, and scampered off, her curvy figure quickly swallowed by the sea of top hats and bustles. Marcie did a survey, and found a small group of people to her left taking turns looking through a handheld slide viewer. Intrigued, she went to join them.
For more than an hour, Alice wandered up tightly spiraling stairways while browsing seemingly endless shelves of leather bound spines embossed with golden text. After a time she discovered what she had been aimlessly searching for: the fiction alcove.
One of Alice’s favorite pictures from the library was of a lovely young woman from the 1940s. She stood leaning against the railing, reading beneath a dangling light.
Alice stood for a moment in the very spot the young woman would stand seventy years from now and smiled. It was a wistful smile of one who knows the future, but can do nothing to change it. In 1955 the Old Main will be outgrown by the demands of the city, and all of its contents moved to the new main branch building. Then, without a backwards glance, one of the most beautiful testaments to the human need for knowledge and learning will be unceremoniously torn down. No one will fight the decision, and for several decades, no one will care.
A giggle and a flourishing clank of heeled steps on metal stairs pulled Alice from her thoughts. A young pair of lovers desperate for a place to steel a kiss quickly darted past her hiding place, continuing on to find a more secluded nook.
Sighing, Alice began her decent back to the main hall’s checkerboard floor to find Marcie and head back to their hotel.
Marcie was easy to find. A grand piano had been set up in the vestibule, and a lively rendition of Going To The Derby In A Four-In-Hand was being played. Marcie being a scholar of musical history stood next to the pianist tapping her foot along jovially.
Managing to catch her eye once the song was finished, Alice tapped her wrist. Marcie thanked the pianist for his wonderful work, and walked over to her wife.
Without a word, they linked arms and headed out into the frosty February night. They were so lost in thought, that neither noticed the well-oiled dandy in purple velvet coat and matching top hat until he crashed right into them, practically knocking Marcie to the ground.
The dandy apologized profusely, his waxed handlebar mustache tilting wildly like the pole of a tightrope walker as he spoke. After Marcie had regained her footing, and they assured the dandy that they were both well, and he bid them a good night, raising his hat with a flourish.
Once they were sure enough space separated them from the dandy, Marci and Alice leaned into one another and said, “Your team,” in unison, and began to giggle.
When the arrived at the door from which they had exited several hours before, Alice removed her glove, and grabbed the knob. The knob, silently reading her palm and fingerprints, unlocked and allowed the chilled women to enter.
After exchanging their constricting corsets for more reasonable white, fluffy robes, Marci asked, “Where to next?”
Alice took a sip of her hot cocoa and said, “I was thinking something a little more tropical. How about Cuba in the 1930s?”
“Oh, that sounds like fun! Maybe we’ll run into Hemmingway.”