The House of Velvet and Glass


By Katherine Howe

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Katherine Howe, author of the phenomenal New York Times bestseller The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane, returns with an entrancing historical novel set in Boston in 1915, where a young woman stands on the cusp of a new century, torn between loss and love, driven to seek answers in the depths of a crystal ball. Still reeling from the deaths of her mother and sister on the Titanic, Sibyl Allston is living a life of quiet desperation with her taciturn father and scandal-plagued brother in an elegant town house in Boston’s Back Bay. Trapped in a world over which she has no control, Sybil flees for solace to the parlor of a table-turning medium. But when her brother is suddenly kicked out of Harvard under mysterious circumstances and falls under the sway of a strange young woman, Sibyl turns for help to psychology professor Benton Jones, despite the unspoken tensions of their shared past. As Benton and Sibyl work together to solve a harrowing mystery, their long-simmering spark flares to life, and they realize that there may be something even more magical between them than a medium’s scrying glass. From the opium dens of Boston’s Chinatown to the opulent salons of high society, from the back alleys of colonial Shanghai to the decks of the Titanic, The House of Velvet and Glass weaves together meticulous period detail, intoxicating romance, and a final shocking twist in a breathtaking novel that will thrill readers.Bonus features in the eBook: Katherine Howe’s essay on scrying; Boston Daily Globe article on the Titanic from April 15, 1912; and a Reading Group Guide and Q&A with the author, Katherine Howe.


Praise for The House of Velvet and Glass

“Richly atmospheric, The House of Velvet and Glass transported me to the turn of the twentieth century and a world changing as rapidly and irrevocably as our own. A gifted historian and storyteller, Katherine Howe has created a vividly imagined world that made me want to suspend time, lingering just a bit longer with the characters who live there, before the whole thing vanished in the clouded glass.”

—Brunonia Barry, author of The Lace Reader and The Map of True Places

“Katherine Howe follows up her amazing debut with The House of Velvet and Glass, a thoughtful journey into the realms of the supernatural that inhabits its source material with effortless ease and charm. A totally absorbing read peopled with characters who will haunt readers’ minds.”

—David Liss, author of The Twelfth Enchantment and A Conspiracy of Paper

“An intricate and intimate family portrait, painted against a backdrop of beautifully rendered tales of colonialist Shanghai, the wreck of the Titanic, and upper-crust Boston dabblers in the spirit world in the uneasy days preceding the Great War.”

—Lyndsay Faye, author of The Gods of Gotham and Dust and Shadow


For my favorite


North Atlantic Ocean
Outward Bound
April 14, 1912


Somewhere below the hubbub of the dinner hour, under the omnipresent vibrating of the ship’s engines, a clock could be heard beginning to chime. Helen Allston tightened her grip on her daughter’s elbow, brushing aside the lace from Eulah’s sleeve to better settle her fingers in its crook. She cast a sidelong glance at Eulah, whose buoyant anticipation seemed not to register her mother’s weight on her arm. Eulah’s face, flushed and pink, eyelids darkened with such a cunning hand that even Helen, who knew better, found the change difficult to detect, wore a bright, open expression that few other women’s daughters could manage with success. Helen sighed with satisfaction. She never tired of seeing the world through Eulah’s eyes, young and willing as they were.

But not too willing, of course.

“What a fetching way you’ve done your hair,” she murmured, steering Eulah with a firm hand toward the grand staircase. Her daughter’s blond curls, too unruly for Helen’s liking most of the time, had been twisted off her forehead and fastened back in a roll, then smothered with a cloud of fragile black netting fastened at the crown with a butterfly, its enamel wings set en tremblant, and so shimmering slightly with Eulah’s every movement.

“My brooch?” Helen said aloud, recognizing the ornament, and Eulah turned to her, eyes wide with mock innocence.

“You don’t mind, do you, Mother?” she asked, dimpling. “Nellie said that all the New York girls were wearing brooches this way, and I thought . . .”

Helen held her gaze for a moment, sufficient to indicate whose brooch this was really, but not long enough to instill any real remorse. She knew that she was inclined to give Eulah too much, rather than too little, leeway. Eulah had a way of making one see the absolute logic of her preferences, no matter how unorthodox. And she had to admit that the new maid they’d brought with them had a good eye for what was fashionable in hairdressing.

“Well,” she demurred, and Eulah laughed, placing her hand on her mother’s, knowing the battle was won before it started.

“Just remember, my dear, that for all that New York fashion, you’re a Boston girl,” Helen whispered, to Eulah’s puff of exasperation. This motherly remonstration dispensed with, the two Allston women paused at the top of the staircase, readying themselves.

Helen’s gaze traveled over her daughter for a final appraisal, wanting to ensure that everything was in its place before they swept down the stairs and into the first-class dining room. Under the netting Eulah’s liquid blue eyes glimmered with anticipation, behind which lurked something else that Helen struggled to identify. She peered closer. Determination, perhaps.

She was accustomed to seeing her youngest child determined. All her children were willful, of course, but Eulah had taken the Allston stubbornness and aimed it outward, at a world that she felt needed fixing, with the same alacrity that Helen’s two older children aimed inward, at themselves. Perhaps after all Eulah finally understood the opportunities available to her on this journey, even more than Helen had guessed.

This determination appeared in the obvious care that her daughter had taken with her evening dress. Helen took pleasure in the creativity Eulah showed in instructing the dressmakers back on Tremont Street, and she suspected that her hours with the dressmakers in Paris would only make Eulah’s directions more demanding. Well, she supposed they would be, anyway, given all that time poring over Journal des Dames et des Modes.

Helen thought it best that Eulah not attempt to look too French, at least not until well after they returned from the tour, so she was glad to see her waist just a little high but still bound with a satin sash, a deep vermilion that she recognized from one of Eulah’s coming-out dresses last winter. The reused satin gathered a rich, narrow column of marigold silk with a matching lace overlay around the bodice, which suited her figure marvelously. Granted, the bodice was just a shade low for Helen’s taste. But she had to admit that the lower cut set off Eulah’s grandmother’s cameo beautifully. All in all, Helen concluded that the months in Italy and France had done wonders for her daughter. Eulah had left Boston a fresh, lively girl, and now she had all the freshness of before, but with the sophisticated gloss that can only be imparted by prolonged exposure to certain works of art, performances of opera, and the perfumed air of fashionable restaurants.

Helen cast a melancholy eye down at her own costume, an evening dress a few seasons out-of-date, but still serviceable. Navy taffeta, low on the shoulders, with black beadwork and sashed with pale blue. She wished she had thought to take it over to Mme. Planchette’s atelier for a sprucing up, shortening above the floor, at least. Her slippers groped around in puddles of silk, hunting for purchase on the polished deck. Helen frowned, regretting her age, and her hand sneaked up to finger the seed pearl choker nestled in the delicate skin of her throat.

Of course Eulah’s loveliness was a credit to her mother. And Helen prided herself on being remarkably well preserved. Her face had only the slightest trace of lines at the edge of her mouth, her eyes were as clear as they ever were, and she only kept the spectacles on a golden lorgnette at her waist for the reading of menus. The rinse that she used was very clever indeed—not even Eulah suspected that Helen’s rich dark hair, now heaped in an elegant pouf at her crown, was less than natural in coloring. At least the navy of her dress complemented Helen’s skin, pearlescent in the low electric light. She would have preferred gas, at least from an aesthetic standpoint, but she supposed the ship must have all the latest modern conveniences. Lan would disapprove, surely. At the thought of her husband, Helen’s face darkened but brightened again almost immediately.

“Why, if it isn’t the Misses Allston!” boomed a young man’s voice, and Helen felt a familiar hand at her elbow. She turned and met the merry face of Deke Emerson, slick haired and apple cheeked in his tight evening clothes, already flushed from his exertions in the library in the hours preceding dinner.

“Why, Deckie!” Eulah squealed, clapping her hands. “I wondered if we’d see you. Mother says that there’re quite a lot of our set on the manifest, but we haven’t seen anyone yet. Isn’t it just marvelous!”

“It is. Doubly so,” Emerson managed, with a little trouble, “now that I’ve found two such sharming dinner companions.”

Helen smiled her most tolerant smile. “My dear Mr. Emerson, what a pleasure. We would be so grateful if you would escort us into the dining room. We’ve engaged to dine with Mrs. Widener this evening.” She emphasized their dining partner’s name, and gave him a weighted look.

“Ah!” said Emerson, comprehending, with an acquiescent waggle of his eyebrows. “I approached you with no other object in mind.” He offered each woman an arm, and with a gathering of skirts and nerves, they descended the grand staircase to the dining room.

As Eulah nattered to Deckie about the wonders of motor dashes through the Bois de Boulogne and the fashions worn by Parisian women, Helen caught her breath at the glittering scene unfolding before her. The staircase itself was a marvel, more suited to a Parisian hotel than an ocean liner. It was carved out of an elegant wood—Lan would know what it was, and he would probably scoff at going to such expense on the fittings of a ship. Like most seagoing men, Lan could be pigheaded about traveling for pleasure. Well, it couldn’t be helped—Eulah must go on the tour. When he saw the change wrought in his youngest daughter, the exquisite finish that Europe had applied to her, Helen knew that Lan would agree she had been right.

The staircase was festooned with carved wooden curlicues, lit by a cherub on the central railing holding aloft an electric torch. Overhead soared an illuminated crystal dome delineated by wrought iron, which reminded Helen of the coils and leaves of the shopping arcades in the rue du Faubourg. The landing of the grand staircase featured a clock with Roman numerals and sharp hands, its face dwarfed by ornate woodwork. She gazed at the clock as they passed down the stairs; presumably the dinner chimes hailed from it. Helen frowned, confused.

“Mr. Emerson,” she said, interrupting Eulah’s enthused discourse on an opera singer whom she had spotted in a café the evening before they departed for England.

“Yes, Mrs. Allston?” her escort replied, solicitous in his pronunciation.

“Is there anything the matter with that clock that you can see?” she asked, nodding her head in its direction.

“Why, I should think not.” He laughed, matching his pace to theirs. “Ship’s brand-new, you know. What’s the word these sailor types use? Shipshape?”

Eulah giggled, digging her elbow into Emerson, and Helen’s frown deepened. The clock bothered her. It looked oddly familiar, but she couldn’t have seen its like before. And try as she might, she couldn’t quite make herself understand what time it was reading. Even this confusion felt familiar; in another moment she would be able to remember what this reminded her of. It was the most curious sensation.

Just then an elderly couple whom Helen recognized from their Tuesday evening lecture society passed by on the way upstairs to the first-class lounge, and she snapped to attention. They bowed, and she nodded, introducing her daughter and Mr. Emerson. The group joined in a few moments’ collective exclamation over the relative fineness of the ship, the dreariness of shipboard life, the delight in continually running into one’s Boston acquaintances while abroad, the miserableness of the Popish peasantry in rural Italy, and the great relief to be returning to Boston, where one could have a proper meal at last.

“Gracious, Mother, listen!” exclaimed Eulah once they had freed themselves from the elderly couple. The band had begun to play, and at the bottom of the staircase they swept through the reception hall and arrived at a splendid dining room, tables all laid with crisp white linen. Tiny candles cast the sterling tableware in warm, twinkling light, and the room was filling with murmuring clusters of people, some few couples dancing at the end of the gallery, the men in perfectly turned-out evening dress.

But the women! Helen smiled as she surveyed the flock of women illuminating each cluster of black-coated men, like tropical birds in a sea of penguins. There was Mrs. Brown, as if Helen needed any help finding her, so insistent was her bellowing western voice, her impressive girth swathed in layers of mink unfitting to April and unmistakably expensive. And there was beautiful young Mrs. Astor, the same age as Eulah, in quiet conference with Mrs. Appleton, neither of whom Helen had met, but Eulah often remarked over their doings when reading the columns in Town Topics. Mercy, how elegant Mrs. Appleton looked. Her gown was of a shell pink so delicate that it almost seemed not to exist.

The sound of humming broke in on these reflections, and Helen shot a reproving look at Eulah, the humming’s source.

“Oh, but I love this song, Mother.” Eulah smiled. “Dum dah dee dum dum duuuuum.”

“Goose,” teased Emerson as he propelled them to their table. “You can’t know this song. It’s brand-new. Why, I only just heard it in Paree, and at a café where your mother wouldn’t ever let you go.”

“I do so know it!” Eulah mock-pouted. “I can even remember some of the words.”

“Is that a fact.” Emerson smiled.

“Dum dee dah dah, hmmm hmmmm silver liiiining . . .” Eulah warbled, her gloved hand drawing musical circles in the air at her shoulder.

“Eulah!” Helen scolded. But her exhortations were cut short by their arrival at the appointed table.

“Well, ladies,” Emerson said, holding on to the back of a chair for extra support as he executed a gentlemanly bow. “Here is where I bid you adieu.”

“You’re too kind, Mr. Emerson,” Helen said, dismissing him, not unkindly.

Eulah gifted Emerson with her most celestial smile, and after he had helped them, as best he could, to their seats, he withdrew.

Helen leaned in to admonish her daughter about her conversation, when she was interrupted by the appearance of Mrs. Widener and, just behind her, a mustachioed eminence who could only be her husband, George. Helen sighed, resigned. She hoped Eulah would have better sense than to go on about her absurd political ideas in front of Mrs. Widener. For all Europe’s salutary influence, Helen worried that her daughter was still dangerously forward thinking. Helen had even caught her lecturing Lady Rutherford in the dressing room at the opera on the necessity of female suffrage.

Of course, Helen had a few unorthodox interests of her own. Not political of course. Spiritual ones, mainly. Mrs. Dee always said Helen owed it to herself—to the world—to expound about the wonderful things they were accomplishing at her Wednesday evenings. Perhaps Eulah was right and Helen oughtn’t lecture her about proselytizing. But babbling on about nonsense in one’s sewing circle was one thing, and doing it at dinner on the first real night of a transatlantic passage was something else.

“Eleanor!” Helen smiled up at her dinner companion, nudging Eulah under the table with a slipper to summon her attention. “My dear, how are you? What a long time it’s been. And Mr. Widener traveling with you. How nice.”

“Helen,” Mrs. Widener acknowledged, offering her hand, which Helen took. Mrs. Widener adjusted the ermine at her shoulders, casting a slow, calculating gaze around the dining room. Finally she sighed and sank into the seat next to Helen Allston, rearranging her skirts and settling against the gilded seat with patient assistance from her husband, who then seated himself and proceeded to drum his meaty fingertips on the tabletop. A few moments passed with the table in silence as the band continued, diners in small clusters began to pick their way to their own tables, and Helen fumbled in her mind for something more to say.

“Well,” Mrs. Widener said at length. “Here we are.” Her husband grunted in assent.

Helen smiled, leaning nearer, and began, “My dear Eleanor, but you remember my daughter Eulah, don’t you? We’re on our way home from the tour,” as Eulah trampled over her mother’s introduction with “How d’you do, Mrs. Widener! And Mr. Widener,” extending her gloved hand across the little nosegay of lilies at the center of the table.

“Of course,” Mrs. Widener allowed, clutching and releasing Eulah’s hand. Her husband followed suit.

Just then a breathless young man appeared from within the crush of people and stooped down to Mrs. Widener’s ear with a “There you are, Mother. I’ve just spent five minutes trapped at a table with Eddie Calderhead, listening to some business scheme of his. Picked up the wrong table card. Nearly had to promise him twenty thousand dollars just so’s he’d let me leave.”

“You didn’t, did you?” Mr. Widener grumbled, but his son paid him no mind.

The young man collapsed into the free chair at his mother’s side with a grin. “Nearly, I said,” he tossed off with a laugh. Mrs. Widener smiled a mother’s indulgent smile, and turned to Helen.

“And you remember my son, don’t you? Here, Harry, meet some lovely people I know from Boston. Mrs. Helen and Miss Eulah Allston.”

“How d’you do,” Harry said, rising with a nod at each, and then seating himself. Helen took in this unexpected development closely. So the Wideners had brought along their son. He was older than Eulah, to be sure, but not so very much. Twenties, thereabouts. A Harvard man, impeccably dressed. Hair a bit messy, but it gave him a sweet, bookish air. Fine jaw. Lovely, straight Roman nose. Roman, or Grecian? Oh, she could never remember. Helen wondered if he was entering into his father’s business. Trolley cars, wasn’t it? Lan would know. Of course, his mother being an Elkins, what his father did hardly mattered.

“I was just telling your mother,” Helen ventured, “that Eulah and I are returning from Paris. Her first time, you know.”

Harry’s eyes settled on Eulah with interest. “Why, that’s capital! Everyone should go to Paris at least once. Some excellent book dealers there as well. How’d you find it?”

Eulah allowed herself a small, mysterious smile, as though she were newly privy to untold mysteries at which Harry could only guess.

“Why, I suppose it was . . .” She paused, pretending to search for the perfect word, and so drawing his attention. He edged closer to hear what she might say, and Helen felt her heart flutter.

“Magical,” Eulah finished. “Just so. It was all magical. The art. The opera. The balls.”

“The ateliers,” Mr. Widener muttered to no one in particular.

“What is it that you do, Harry?” Helen dove in, rescuing the table from Eulah’s tendency to rhapsodize.

“I am a bibliophile,” he said with gravity, ignoring Mr. Widener’s audible snort.

“Are you!” Eulah exclaimed as Helen blinked in confusion.

“Indeed. We were just in Paris as well, as a matter of fact. I was there seeing if I could hunt down this particular volume, and Mother and Father decided they would come along for a change of scene.”

“Paris!” Eulah cried. “How funny we didn’t see you any sooner. I wish you’d tell me about the book you were looking for. I just love books, you know. Did you find it?”

“It’s called Le Sang de Morphée,” Harry said, rising. “And I will tell you everything there is to know about it, if you’ll only dance with me.”

Mrs. Widener suppressed a startled cough as Eulah turned her delighted eyes to Helen. “May I?” she asked, already halfway to her feet, Harry reaching, too late, to pull back her chair.

“Why, of course, my dear!” Helen beamed. “You needn’t bother about us. Catch them while they’re still playing that song you like.”

Giggling, Eulah placed her hand into Harry’s and allowed him to help her away from the table, the music seeming to swell in concert with Eulah’s growing pleasure. Harry supported her back with a firm hand and, executing a few masterly steps, waltzed them away into the throng of dancers at the end of the gallery.

Helen sighed, pleased, thinking of the cotillion when she first saw Lan. She had felt so grown up, in the stiff silk evening dress her mother ordered, her hair put up for the first time. Helen noticed him right away, even before her mother pointed him out, whispering his marriageable qualifications in her ear with irritating urgency. Helen hadn’t heard a thing her mother said. Perhaps his being so much older was a part of it: his face was nut brown, and his eyes looked haunted and knowing. All those years at sea, and it seemed that part of him was forever at sea, unreachable. She shivered at the memory.

Harry Widener might not be as mysterious to Eulah as Lan had been to her, but then Eulah didn’t have Helen’s taste for mystery. Mrs. Dee had recognized the spark of the unusual in Helen right away, but it was a private spark, one that she kept hidden beneath a well-rehearsed public face.

Eulah, however, was an outward-looking girl. Headstrong, too quick with her desires and opinions. Helen worried that she was hungry for life, almost demanding of it. She would do well with a young man like Harry: well educated, moneyed, bookish, reliable. A trifle boring. He would settle Eulah down. Helen pressed her lips together in resolve. Never mind the four thousand dollars for the ticket, then. Lan could complain about the expense as he might, but it was worth it if she could see at least one of her children settled.

Le Sang de Morphée indeed,” Mrs. Widener remarked to herself, surveying the glittering scene before her with a gaze of supreme boredom.

“Blood from a stone, more like,” Mr. Widener replied, resettling a pair of gold spectacles on the bridge of his nose and applying his attention to a sheet of heavy card stock in his hand. Helen was shaken out of her reverie long enough to notice that menu cards had appeared. Oysters! Well, she supposed that was apt. And perhaps that boded well for Eulah’s chances. Helen placed equal stock in the power of old wives’ tales as she did in the newer branches of thought. Consommé Olga, whatever that was. Poached salmon and mousseline sauce with cucumbers.

“What is the name of this tune, Helen?” Mrs. Widener interrupted her thoughts with a poke of her gloved finger on Helen’s forearm.

“Why, I’m sure I don’t know.” Helen smiled, catching a glimpse of Eulah in the crowd of dancers, her head thrown back in exquisite laughter at something Harry was saying. Through the rising babble of dinner conversation, the clinking of cutlery and glassware, the swelling horn section of the band, Helen wondered if she could be hearing the clock tolling again. Was it tolling in actuality, or just in the back of her mind? She pushed the question aside, taking up the menu again to see what gustatory delights lay in store for her and her daughter.

Roast duckling in applesauce. Parmentier and boiled new potatoes. Cold asparagus vinaigrette. Pâté de foie gras, and—oh, Eulah would be so pleased—chocolate and vanilla eclairs! Helen turned in her seat, searching for her daughter’s gay face in the crowd of revelers, dropping the menu in her haste on the floor, where it settled against the gilded leg of her chair.

At the top of the menu, engraved in elegant, nautical letters, was written the name of the splendid ocean liner that was carrying them home: TITANIC.

Chapter One

Beacon Hill
Boston, Massachusetts
April 15, 1915


Goodness, but the air was cloying. Sibyl Allston felt a cough rise in her chest and pressed her handkerchief to her lips to silence it. Thankfully she had soaked the kerchief in a little 4711 this time; the astringent, citrusy scent of the cologne sharpened her mind and pushed away the room’s miasma. She shifted, feeling her heart turn over in her chest, lurching in trepidation tinted with a strange kind of excitement.

Across the table, Sibyl observed an anonymous man, on the elderly side of middle age, also overcome by the heavy atmosphere. His eyes watered, and skin hung in sallow folds over his detachable collar. She didn’t know his name, though she supposed it would have been easy to deduce from the papers if she bothered to look. Sibyl saw him, every once in a rare while, driving down Beacon Street in an old-fashioned brougham, one of the last ones in town, his eyes sheathed in worry. Strange that they should always see each other here, always be seated directly opposite one another, and yet never breathe a word.

Mrs. Dee insisted on that. Absolute secrecy, and absolute silence. Mrs. Dee had a way of dealing only in absolutes that Sibyl had once found reassuring.

The parlor where they gathered every year had been redone in the modern style some decades ago, in homage to Mrs. Dee’s “celebrated” status. The furniture was all carved rococo woods, weighted down with curlicues and waxen fruit and snarling animal faces, the seats upholstered in scarlet silk with golden tassels. The walls bore silk upholstery in a rival shade of magenta patterned with rosebuds, their dignity screened from sunlight by double-hung velvet portieres in deep navy, kissed by sun bleaching at their fringed edges, ends puddling on the floor. The fireplace mantel was black marble, crowded with daguerreotypes and small geodes clustered on a doily, with twin crystal whale-oil lamps at either end.


On Sale
Jan 29, 2013
Page Count
432 pages
Hachette Books

Katherine Howe

About the Author

Katherine Howe got her PhD in American and New England Studies at Boston University. She is author of one previous novel, The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane. She lives in Ithaca, NY, with her husband.

Learn more about this author