Maids of Misfortune: A Victorian San Francisco Mystery
By M. Louisa Locke
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
Maids of Misfortune. Copyright © 2009 Mary Louisa Locke
Cover © 2009 Michelle Huffaker
Monday morning, August 6, 1879
Annie Fuller gasped, shocked at even allowing such an unladylike expression to enter her mind. She had been enjoying her tea and toast while sorting through her mail in splendid solitude. This was one of the privileges of being the owner of a boarding house, and absolute heaven after the dreadful years she had spent living off the charity of her in-laws, not a room or a moment to call her own.
However, this morning, the mail contained a slim envelope that had blasted her peace to shreds. With trembling hands she reread the letter, which followed the standard business formula, direct, very much to the point, and devastating in its implications.
Mr. Hiram P. Driscoll
New York City, New York
July 25, 1879
Mrs. John Fuller
407 O’Farrell Street
San Francisco, California
I hope that this letter finds you in good health. It pains me to have to introduce such a difficult subject, but it is my duty to remind you of your obligation to repay the loan I made to your late husband, John Fuller, by September 30, 1879.
To reacquaint you with the particulars: the original loan was for $300, to be paid back within six years. Under the terms of the loan, interest was to be paid monthly at a rate of 5% until the loan was repaid. In respect for your departed husband, for whom I had great affection, and in recognition of your financial difficulties at the time of his death five years ago, I did not insist that this part of the agreement be met. However, since none of the interest has been paid, you are now responsible for the original loan, plus accrued interest, a total sum of $1,380.00.
I confess that I have been quite concerned about your ability to meet your obligations, and I was greatly relieved when I heard from your esteemed father-in-law about your good fortune in inheriting property in such an up-and-coming city as San Francisco. I must be in your fair city the last week of August on business. I would like to take the opportunity to stop by and visit with you at that time. I am quite sure that we will be able to come to some agreement of mutual benefit.
Your obedient servant,
Hiram P. Driscoll
Annie’s skin crawled as she thought of Mr. Driscoll, one of New York City’s most successful entrepreneurs. “Your obedient servant.” The hypocrite! She realized some women found his unctuous manner attractive, but after each encounter with him she always felt soiled. At parties he had leaned close, his husky voice whispering inanities as if they were endearments, his hot breath blanketing her cheek and his hands roving unceasingly over her person, patting a shoulder, stroking a hand, squeezing an elbow.
Annie shivered. Standing up abruptly, she crossed the room to close the window, shutting out the chill early morning fog. She had suspected that Driscoll had played some role in her late husband’s dramatic slide into financial ruin, but she hadn’t realized the man played the part of loan shark. Not that she was surprised at the debt. Creditors swarmed from the wainscoting in the months following John’s death, picking over what was left of his estate. Few of them got a tenth of what was owed, since her father-in-law, as John’s executor, hired an expensive but skilled bankruptcy lawyer to ensure that at least his own assets would not be touched. But Annie had been left destitute and dependent on John’s family.
Dependent, that was, until she inherited this house from her Aunt Agatha last year. She had returned to San Francisco where she had lived as a small child and turned the old mansion, located just four blocks from Market Street, into a respectable boarding house. Annie’s features softened as she walked to the fireplace and turned to look at the room that had grown golden with the sunrise. The furnishings were sparse. There was an old mahogany bedstead and mismatched wardrobe and chest of drawers, a simple round table on which the morning tea tray sat, and a comfortable armchair, next to the fireplace. A worn Persian carpet covered a dark oak floor, and the only decoration was the two simple blue jugs holding dried flowers sitting on either side of the mantel clock. These jugs and the clock were all that was left of her inheritance from her mother, who had died over thirteen years ago. She didn’t care if her surroundings were unfashionable because she loved everything about the room and the house and the freedom they represented.
Oh, how unfair to have Driscoll and his loan surface at this time, when she finally felt safe. He was clever to have waited, accumulating the interest. If he had tried to collect on the original loan five years ago, he would have gotten very little, perhaps nothing, back. Everything she had brought into her marriage, including the house her father gave her, had gone to settle her husband’s debts. But now she had Aunt Agatha’s house, and Driscoll wanted take it from her. The last part of the letter implied as much.
Annie began to pace. The house was small, built in the early 1850s, and she had only six rooms to let out. After all the expenses of running a boarding house, she barely broke even. There was simply no way that she could, on her own, pay off Driscoll’s loan, without selling the house itself. Fighting Driscoll in a New York court would be equally expensive, as he would be well aware. He probably counted on being able to frighten her into turning over the house. The lawyer who was executor of her Aunt Agatha’s estate had suggested that she might get nine hundred, or even a thousand dollars for the property, located as it was near the expanding commercial sector of the city. Clearly Driscoll had figured this out.
“The God-damned bastard!” This time Annie said the words out loud.
She may have been only twenty-six, a widow without any immediate family to protect her, but she refused to let Driscoll, or any other man for that matter, rip her home and independence away from her a second time.
When Annie finally left her bedroom, it was a quarter to seven. Descending the narrow uncarpeted backstairs, she caught the tantalizing odor of the morning bread baking and heard the faint clatter of breakfast dishes interspersed with bursts of conversation emanating from the kitchen below. She yearned to go down one more flight and join in whatever joke had caused the sudden laughter, but she couldn’t, she had work to do. She turned off the stairs on to the first floor and entered a small room at the back of the house.
At one time this room had been a gloomy back parlor where her Uncle Timothy had retired with his port after Sunday dinner to smoke his cigar and subsequently snore away the long afternoons. Annie had remodeled it by having a small entrance cut from this room into the larger parlor in front, installing a washstand and mirror in one corner and replacing the horsehair sofa with a small desk and book shelves.
Annie stood in front of that washstand and began a curious morning ritual. First, she liberally dusted her face with a flat white powder that rested in a box on the top of the washstand, effectively erasing all signs of the freckles sprinkled across her nose. Then she dipped the little finger of her right hand into a small tin containing a sticky black substance, which she applied liberally to her eyelashes, normally the same reddish-gold as her hair. Using her middle finger, she transferred a minute quantity of rouge from another tin to her lips, turning their usual soft pink into a strident scarlet. After washing the black and red stains from her hands with the rough soap she kept beside the washstand, she bent and opened the cabinet door under the stand and removed a disembodied head.
She placed this apparition, a be-wigged hairdresser’s wooden form, on the stand. After tethering her own braided hair securely with a net, she carefully lifted the mass of intricately entwined jet black curls off the form and pulled it snugly onto her own head. The transformation was startling. Her eyes seemed to grow instantly larger, turning from the color of heavily-creamed chocolate to the deep rich hues of coffee, taken black. Her features, normally pleasing but unremarkably Anglo-Saxon, emerged as flamboyant and Mediterranean. Annie smiled mockingly at her image in the mirror. Then, after putting the mute, scalped hairdresser’s form away, she draped a silken shawl of scarlet and gold over her severe black dress and opened the door to the front parlor, where she would spend the rest of her day at work, not as Annie Fuller, the respectable, widowed boardinghouse keeper, but as Sibyl, one of San Francisco’s most exclusive clairvoyants.
“Mr. Harper, please, do not be so impatient. The reading I took last week was quite explicit. For a Taurus like you, there will be a definite improvement in financial status in the months to come. But this will take time. The signs were not for a sudden windfall, but a gradual improvement.”
Annie kept her voice pitched carefully in the lower registers, with extra emphasis on her sibilants. She had always had a good ear for accents, and she found it easy when she was speaking as Sibyl to call up the cadences of the Italian porter who had worked in her father’s investment firm in New York City.
She stared at the man who stood at the fireplace with his back to her, noting the tension in his curved shoulders and the nervous way he scrubbed his hands, trying to capture some of the fire’s warmth. While it was chilly this morning, as was usual for August, it was not cold enough to explain why Mr. Harper had hovered next to the fireplace throughout this whole session.
“Mr. Harper,” she spoke more sharply. “You did sell that stock in Furngell’s Cable Company, as we discussed last week? The notice of bankruptcy was posted Friday. You should have been able to unload the shares before then.”
The dispirited droop of his shoulders eloquently foreshadowed his answer. “Oh, Madam Sibyl, I didn’t sell. I got to talking with Mr. Heller later that day, and he swore he’d heard the company was about to be bought out by Hallidie’s company. I thought I’d just wait another week.”
In her guise as Sibyl, Annie frowned and scolded him for failing to heed the advice of the stars, but inwardly she smiled. Mr. Harper was an indecisive little man who tended to follow every tip he heard. His constant buying and selling of stock as San Francisco lurched its way slowly out of the terrible depression of the mid-seventies nearly ruined him. Since he only owned a few shares of Furngell’s now-worthless company, this last mistake would not seriously hurt him. But it might make him more willing to follow her advice in the future. So she decided to let the poor man off the hook.
“Mr. Harper. Come and sit down. It is not the end of the world. It takes great strength of will to avoid what fate has prepared for you. Last week when I cast your horoscope, I saw a small obstacle in your way. Perhaps you might have avoided it if you followed my advice. But, I understand. Fate this time was too strong for either of us. Do not worry. The stars also forecast success for you in the long run, and you will not be easily able to avoid that future either.”
She smiled briefly at him as he came and sat across the table from her. A man in his mid-fifties, he dressed conservatively in brown worsted as befitted a hardworking retailer of lady’s sewing notions. But the yellow silk vest that peeped from under his frock coat testified to the more daring side of his personality. From the first she had found him easy to read. She saw her task as trying to harness the two aspects of his nature in tandem.
Taking up his right hand and softly tracing the lines in his palm as she had done each session, she began to speak. “Mr. Harper, see how this line is strong and reinforced in several places? Remember how I told you this represents the conjunction of the both the moon and Venus ascending?”
She noted, as her patter continued, that the worried lines in the man’s forehead began to smooth out, and he began to nod with each point that she made. “Now, Mr. Harper, I believe that by the middle of next week you shall have good news that will greatly relieve your concerns about financing your September trip.”
Annie mentally crossed her fingers, although she was feeling fairly confident in her predictions. The close reading she had made that weekend of the San Francisco Commercial Herald and Market Review revealed that a particularly good wheat harvest was going to increase the value of the investments Mr. Harper had made in local flourmills. She was certain that some of the increase would be reflected on the California Stock Exchange before the end of next week, since she would not be the only one who would have drawn that conclusion. Within the month, he should be able to sell at a tidy profit, enough to bankroll his annual buying trip to New York.
He had resisted buying the stock originally. Agricultural-based investments were always risky; however, she had based her advice on sound information gleaned from the small central valley newspapers. Yet, to Mr. Harper it would seem that Madam Sibyl was truly clairvoyant.
“Clairvoyant, specializing in business and domestic advice, consultations by appointment only, fee $2” stated her simple advertisement that ran weekly in the San Francisco Chronicle.
Unlike the other men and women who listed themselves as mediums or fortunetellers in the city, Sibyl did not have open consultations nor did she hold séances. She neither promised to contact the dead through slates, move tables, speak in a trance, produce materializations, nor tell amazing information about the past. Through the casting of horoscopes and reading of palms, she offered only to see clearly into the future and give advice. After less than a year at the business, Sibyl had twenty-six regular clients, a few who had bi-weekly consultations. Her fee was twice the going rate, because she had found that the higher fee and the “appointment only” rule kept away those individuals who were shopping for news from the spirit world and helped her develop a steady clientele that really could benefit from her expertise. She brought in a substantial sum each month, enough to pay for the additional expenses connected to transforming a family home into a boarding house.
She had even accumulated a few hundred dollars so she could make some investments of her own. But all of this would have to be liquidated if the importunate Mr. Driscoll had his way. This thought distracted Annie, and she found Mr. Harper looking puzzled at her momentary silence. She mustn’t permit her own concerns to interfere with her work.
The clock over the fireplace chimed the half-hour as she leaned forward and stared at Mr. Harper’s hand as it lay face up on the table. She looked up and gave him a strong, encouraging smile.
“Mr. Harper. You will have a very good day today. You will be kind but firm with your head clerk, Mrs. Parker, inquiring after her daughter’s health, but insisting that she be pleasant with the customers. You will eat lightly at lunch, and when Mr. Rosenthal needles you about the Furngell bankruptcy, you will not become angry. You will realize that, as a Gemini, Mr. Rosenthal is simply a talker who speaks from his envy of those who are willing to take a chance in this life. And you will know that you have done no wrong, simply followed what the stars had planned for you.
“Then, after a very productive afternoon, you will return home early, surprising your wife with the brooch you bought for her birthday. You will find your evening congenial, your wife amiable, your children full of high spirits, and your appetite good. I will see you at eight next Monday morning, and I am sure you will have good news for me then.”
Mr. Harper sighed lightly and smiled as if in anticipation of this pleasant future. He stood up and briskly crossed to the coat rack by the door, where he retrieved his hat and cane. Bowing with surprising grace, he said, “Thank you, Madam Sibyl. As usual your advice makes a good deal of sense.” Then he left the room.
Annie slumped for a minute, listening to the murmuring in the hall as her maid, Kathleen, escorted Mr. Harper out the front entrance. She now had nearly an hour to prepare for her next client, a young, newly married woman who was having a good deal of difficulty with her mother-in-law. Pushing herself up from the table, she moved to the front windows and pulled open the thick dark green curtains that so effectively shut out sounds from the city street below. She opened one window a crack, since Mr. Harper, like most of her male clients, had smoked when he had first come in. Kathleen would soon bring in several vases of flowers to help sweeten the air.
Moving around the room, Annie made other changes in preparation for her next client. She pulled a comfortable armchair close to the table she always sat behind as Sibyl. Women who had been on their feet since early morning were quite content to remain stationary throughout their consultations. A large tea set would be placed at the armchair’s side, with some of her housekeeper’s delicious pastries temptingly arranged on a plate. She found that in this cozy atmosphere women were more likely to unburden themselves willingly, with little hesitation.
Men, on the other hand, seemed to require a different atmosphere. For them she lay out Uncle Timothy’s crystal decanters, filled with a variety of expensive alcoholic beverages, and she placed, invitingly near at hand, all the little accoutrements of cigar or pipe smoking for those who indulged. In addition, since she had found men seldom stayed sitting, Annie provided a few carefully placed objects d’art for them to look at while roaming around the room.
Aunt Agatha’s father had been a sea captain who plied the Orient. Annie had culled a number of interesting pieces from his collection. It amused her to observe that most men felt much more comfortable turning their backs on her and confessing their fears and hopes to the small jade horse they held in their hand or to the ancient painted leather globe of the world they idly spun in rapid orbits.
She banished this loot from the Orient, along with the whiskey decanters, to the dark paneled cabinets along the walls, replacing them with the numerous knickknacks that had been her Aunt’s pride and joy. When she finished she surveyed the parlor with satisfaction. Fortunately she only had to make the changeover twice a day, once in the morning and again in the afternoon, when women needed to be back at their homes supervising the preparations for dinner and men scheduled appointments for the other end of their work days. Today she’d only two male clients scheduled in the morning; the rest were in the late afternoon, including her favorite, Mr. Matthew Voss.
The thought of Mr. Voss lifted her spirits. Maybe he would be able to help her solve the problem of Mr. Driscoll and his loan. Matthew Voss was a well-respected manufacturer who had come west in ’49 to make his fortune in the gold fields of California. Along with Malcolm Samuels, a man he had met on the trail, he had failed at mining but succeeded in business. In time, their firm, Voss and Samuels, had become one of the leading manufacturers of fine furniture on the west coast. The company, like many other local firms, had faced a difficult time during the recent national panic and depression, and it had been Voss’s desire to put his personal finances on a sounder footing that first brought him to visit Sibyl.
“Sounds crazy to me,” Voss bluntly told Annie the first day he had come to Sibyl for advice. “Can’t see why the lines in my hands, lines that come from plain old-fashioned toil, should help me decide what stocks to buy. But I’ll try anything once. And if you do half as well for me as you done for Porter, well, maybe you’ll just make a believer out of me!” Voss had laughed at this point, a wheezing sort of cackle that had become comfortingly familiar.
Most of her male clients had developed this way. One satisfied customer had inevitably led to several more. She was really doing the job any good investment broker would do, but of course as a respectable woman she could never hold that position. However, as a clairvoyant, Annie found that most men willingly listened to her advice and freely talked about their own ideas for investments. They didn’t worry about whether she could understand the masculine world of finance capital, real estate speculation, and commercial markets because they thought she got her advice from the stars.
Mr. Voss was different. He took her seriously and she felt a glow of satisfaction when she thought about how, with her guidance, he had begun to recoup his fortune. Recently, their discussions were more about how he should spend his money than how he should make it. He’d been particularly interested in pleasing his wife; he worried that he hadn’t been able to devote the time and attention to her that she deserved. “She’s a good little thing,” Voss once said, “and I haven’t liked to worry her about problems with the business. I think we both deserve to start having a bit of fun. Never put much faith in the idea that ‘Virtue is its own reward.’”
So Annie and Mr. Voss had held some lively sessions on the relative merits, astrologically speaking, of the kinds of earthly rewards his wife might like. She suspected a surprise for his wife lay behind the “grand plans” he had referred to in the note she received from him last Wednesday, rescheduling his regular Friday appointment for today. She had been amused by the note, which was, for Voss, uncharacteristically dramatic. Thinking of Voss made her feel more optimistic. She had no doubt he would be able to advise her, perhaps help her get a loan to pay off the debt, if necessary.
Hoping to find some nugget of financial advice that would further brighten Voss’s own financial outlook and perhaps give her some ideas about how to get out of her own predicament, she picked up the morning edition of the San Francisco Chronicle. She would look specifically for the steamship lists that so often revealed interesting information about the region’s commercial health.
A headline on the second page arrested her attention. MYSTERIOUS DEATH OF RESPECTED CITIZEN. What new scandal was the Chronicle manufacturing? Then she noticed in the first paragraph the words “Geary Street.” Since Voss lived on this street, she read on, thinking that Mr. Voss would certainly be full of the news if a neighbor had died.
As the meaning of the words began to sink in, she found it difficult to breathe. “Respectable Furniture Manufacturer Voss …found dead by his wife early Sunday morning…cause of death unknown…no sign of unlawful entry…question of recent business reversals…survived by sister, Miss Nancy Voss, wife, Mrs. Amelia Voss, and son, Jeremy.”
Annie stared at the words that seemed to bleed into each other. The unexpectedness of death always left her feeling betrayed. People she cared for seemed to die someplace else, without warning, without her, without giving her time to say good-bye. Voss had been so alive. She had felt no hint of his impending death; she never did. Why was she so blind to death when she was able to see life so clearly?
Monday evening, August 6, 1879
Annie slowly rocked back and forth in a chair set next to a window crammed with pots of pungent geraniums. The window was open, letting in wisps of fog and the soft sounds of a summer evening. The damp coolness of the breeze was welcome since the old wood cook stove across from her gave out the steady heat necessary for baking bread. An enormous cat lay in a comforting, rumbling mass on her lap. Across the room her housekeeper, Beatrice O’Rourke, leaned over the dishpan, scrubbing the dinner dishes.
Beatrice was a short woman of ample proportions, but somehow her contours suggested lightness rather than weight. Nearly sixty, she had the energy of a much younger woman. Her husband had been a well-respected captain in the local police force, gunned down ten years earlier in a battle with one of the Barbary Coast gangs. The pittance that the St. Mary’s Benevolent Association provided a police captain’s widow forced Beatrice back into domestic service, where she had served Annie’s aunt and uncle as housekeeper and cook. Annie, a widow herself, could well imagine the bitterness this might have produced. But Beatrice was always unfailingly cheerful, and it had been a godsend when she had agreed to help run the boarding house. Annie hadn’t had the heart to tell her about Driscoll’s letter yet. For Beatrice’s sake, as well as her own, she had to find a way to save the house.
Slowly, as she watched Beatrice’s broad back expand and contract and the dimples above her plump elbows wink in and out of sight, the huge knot of misery she had been carrying around all day began to loosen. As she rocked and stroked the cat’s soft black fur, she found herself taking long, deep breaths. She realized that all day she had been carrying herself tightly, as if trying to compress herself into the smallest space possible, becoming invulnerable to assault. Where was the immediate threat? Certainly not here in her own kitchen with Beatrice a comforting few feet away. Yet the shocks of Driscoll’s letter and the death of Mr. Voss had rekindled emotions from her past when unexpected events had irreparably torn the fragile fabric of her world.
The cat under her hand stiffened and the rumbling purr ceased. At first she feared that in the thrall of her dark thoughts she had carelessly hurt the animal, but then a small scratching could be heard at the back door, followed by an excited volley of yips. Beatrice turned around and their eyes met. The last knot of the day’s despair unraveled as Annie turned to the contemplation of life’s real problems and said, “Oh, Bea, Jamie’s dog! I’d forgotten. What are we going to do?”
Beatrice chuckled. “Right now I think we had better let him in, for if he barks much longer we’ll have Jamie down here to see to him, and then the fat will be in the fire.”
Jamie Hewitt, a lively eight-year old, and his widowed mother were boarders who occupied the third-floor back room. Jamie had arrived home that afternoon with a stray dog he rescued from a local bully. He’d pleaded with Annie and Beatrice to let him keep it, claiming that it would make an excellent watchdog. At the time Annie had been fairly brusque with him, thinking angrily, why get a watchdog when in a month she might no longer have a house to watch? But this evening she rejected that attitude as unnecessarily defeatist.
Watching the older woman wipe her hands on the dishtowel, Annie asked, “Did you get a chance to talk to any of the boarders to see if there would be any objections to keeping a dog?”
Beatrice replied as she crossed over to the back door, “Well, Miss Lucy isn’t home from work yet, but if I remember correctly she mentioned having dogs when she was young, so she probably won’t put up a fuss. Neither Mr. Harvey nor Mr. Chapman raised any objection. In fact, Mr. Chapman offered to help Jamie care for it. You know, I think that young gentleman would help take care of an elephant if he thought it might make Jamie’s ma take notice of him.”
She laughed. “Oh Bea, you’re quite right. But I am afraid it will do him no good.”
Miss Lucy Pinehurst, a no-nonsense woman in her late forties who lived alone in a small room on the third floor, was the cashier in one of the more prestigious restaurants in town and usually worked late. Mr. Harvey and Mr. Chapman shared the small room behind Annie’s on the second floor, since they couldn’t afford anything larger on their minuscule salaries as clerks in the city. Mr. Chapman had been showing distinct signs of being smitten with Jamie’s mother, Barbara Hewitt, who taught English literature at Girl’s High. But the departed Mr. Hewitt had evidently ruined her trust in all men.
Bea paused before opening the door and turned. “The Misses Moffet expressed great delight at the idea of having a watchdog. Well, at least Miss Minnie was delighted. As usual Miss Millie didn’t say a word. It seems that they had been worrying a good deal about burglars. What I think is that Jamie had been campaigning for their support before dinner. That boy has a way with him for certain. Do you suppose he’ll grow up to be a senator?”
“Heavens, I hope not! At least not one of those dreadful ones under the railroad’s thumb!”
“Of course not. Not our Jamie! He’d be a champion for the working classes,” replied Beatrice, as she opened the door. “Anyway, Mrs. Stein was of your mind. She felt a dog might be good for the boy.”
By this time the object of concern had come prancing in. He was a small bull-terrier mix, with the pugnacious, squashed-in muzzle of a dockside tough and the soulful brown eyes of an Italian poet. After sticking his non-existent nose into everything he could reach, the dog came and sat at Beatrice’s feet, thrust his skinny chest forward, cocked his head to one side, and looked up expectantly.
Annie chuckled. “Well, it looks as if he is a smart young thing, for he clearly knows who will cast the deciding vote. You have enough to do around here, without adding the care and feeding of a dog.”
Beatrice responded by looking significantly at the extremely alert cat in Annie’s lap. “It seems to me that the deciding vote must come from that old puss, for if she won’t put up with him, there will be no peace in this household. I know she is getting old and crotchety, but I won’t have her bothered, even to please the young lad.”
As if she knew she was being spoken about, the cat sat up in Annie’s lap, drew herself tall and then sprang lightly down onto the kitchen floor. After arching slowly, she walked sedately across the floor until she stood facing the young bull terrier. He sat very still, without blinking. Annie could see that the effort he made not to bark was tremendous. Then, with a swiftness she found remarkable, the cat stretched out her right paw and lightly batted the dog on his forehead, right between his ears. Beyond emitting the smallest of yips and producing the fleeting impression that he had gone cross-eyed, the dog did not stir. The cat then stalked majestically across to her basket in the corner, circled twice, and curled up into instant sleep.
A collective sigh of relief from both Beatrice and the dog followed this performance, and then the sound of laughter came from the doorway leading to the front part of the house.
“I could have told you they’d get along, Ma’am,” said her servant Kathleen. “That old cat already showed him who is queen of the castle this afternoon in the backyard. No, Ma’am, as long as he stays in his place and acts the gentleman, they’ll get along just fine.”
As always, Annie was cheered by the sight of Kathleen Hennessey, who, while only seventeen, was already very wise in the ways of the world. Some family misfortune had orphaned her and sent her into service at the age of twelve. Beatrice had taken her under her wing and brought Kathleen to work for them as soon as they had opened the boarding house. She had proved to be a prodigious worker. Annie was amazed that such a slip of a girl could do so much in any given day. Annie, moderately proportioned and not more than 5’4″ tall herself, felt like an Amazon next to her. Kathleen’s coloring was unremarkable, dark-brown hair, pertly tilted nose, and clear blue eyes. But even the curls that fringed her face seemed to wiggle with excess energy, and her laughter was a tonic to weariness all by itself.
Stepping into the kitchen, Kathleen bustled around assembling the materials needed to soak the table linens so they would be ready to wash in the morning. As she did so, she asked, “So, is it agreed Jamie gets to keep the dog? I do think I would feel safer sleeping back of the kitchen with that dog here to sound the alarm if any one tried any funny business. Patrick is always going on and on about how unsafe this neighborhood is.”
Patrick was a nephew of Beatrice’s, a current member of San Francisco’s police department. He dropped by quite frequently to “check on his Aunt Bea,” but Annie had long suspected that the real object of his visits was Kathleen, who had several admirers vying for her attention.
Kathleen continued, “Even in the posh neighborhoods in the Western Addition past Van Ness you can’t always sleep safe at night. Patrick really thought there had been another burglar at work when that old lady pulled him off his beat yesterday morning. She was sobbing and screeching something terrible about robbers and murder.”
At this point Kathleen turned and looked at Annie, her usual dimples banished and a serious expression in her eyes. “It was your gentlemen that usually comes Fridays. I recognized the name when Patrick said it was a Mr. Matthew Voss. You did know, didn’t you, Ma’am, that he’s dead?”
Annie nodded mutely, fighting to hold back the tears this reminder called forth.
Kathleen went on. “Patrick said the dead gentleman’s wife found him early yesterday morning, just lying across his desk, cold as can be. Patrick says it couldn’t be a robber, no matter what the old lady said, because the wife said all the doors were locked, and there wasn’t anything taken. She, the old gentleman’s wife, told Patrick that it must have been his heart. He had been working too hard. Patrick said she’s a real sweet lady, the wife is, and terrible upset by it all. But Patrick said the police doctor said it looked more like he drank something that didn’t sit right. Maybe he drank poison, by accident or something.”
At this point Beatrice sharply interrupted. “That’s enough of your gossip, girl. ‘Patrick said this and Patrick said that.’ Since when did Patrick McGee become the fountain of all wisdom? A good-for-nothing boy who wouldn’t know how to button his own coat if his mother didn’t show him how every morning. He’d better watch his tongue. When my sainted husband was on the force, no man would have dared talk about a case off-duty. He would have had young Patrick on report, nephew or no nephew. Now you just tend to your own duties and stop chattering.”
Quite startled by the ferocity of Beatrice’s scold, Annie realized that her distress over the death of Mr. Voss must be pretty obvious if Bea had felt the need to snap at Kathleen in that way. But what had Kathleen meant, something Voss drank? The newspaper story hadn’t mentioned any poison. She was just about to question Kathleen further when the bell connected to the front door rang. Kathleen wiped her hands, curtsied, and swiftly made her escape, running up the stairs.
Once Kathleen was out of the room, Annie turned to Beatrice and said, trying to make her voice sound calm, “Bea, you really shouldn’t have been so hard on her. She didn’t mean to upset me. And I do want to know more. I’d like to understand how this terrible thing could have happened. Do you know anything more about it?”
Beatrice shrugged. “Well, Patrick did stop by here when he got off duty this morning. He was practically reeling from lack of sleep. That poor Mr. Voss was discovered very early yesterday morning, toward the end of Patrick’s watch. Since Patrick was the first to see him, his chief expected him to stay on duty for most of the day to answer questions. By this morning he’d been awake for nearly two days. It’s his first death, so he was terribly excited and….”
Annie interjected at this point, “But what did he say? Was Mr. Voss poisoned or not?”
Bea looked searchingly at her, and continued, “Daft boy, he said a good deal, most of it nonsense. I sent him home to calm down and get some sleep. He’ll probably stop by here tomorrow morning and be talking his fool head off again. But what I think, dearie, is that it would be better for you not to dwell on this. I know you were rare fond of the old gentleman, but what is done is done, and fretting isn’t going to bring him back.”
Annie frowned slightly. Beatrice was just trying to protect her, but she was no longer a child and didn’t want to be shielded from the truth. She was trying to frame these thoughts into words when Kathleen reappeared, short of breath.
“Mrs. Fuller, it’s a gentleman, come asking after Sibyl. I did as you told me always to do, said she wasn’t available and that he should leave his name and address so she could get in touch with him. But he wouldn’t do it. He insisted that it was very important he get in touch with her tonight. Said if she wasn’t in, he would like to see who was in charge. I didn’t know what to do, so I put him in the drawing room and said I would see. He looks to be a fine gentleman and ever so handsome, but he seems awfully angry about something. Do you think Mrs. O’Rourke should see him and find out what he wants? Oh, here is the card he gave me.”
Annie’s heart fluttered as she took the embossed card from her. It read, “Nathaniel Dawson, Attorney-at-law. Hobbes, Haranahan, and Dawson. 246 Sansome Street.”
A lawyer! How odd. Maybe he was representing Driscoll. But no, that didn’t make sense; he had asked for Sibyl. Was he a potential customer? But why would he appear angry? Was one of her clients trying to take some legal action against her? Oh, she didn’t want to leave the warmth and safety of the kitchen. But it wouldn’t be fair to send Beatrice in her place, and she certainly wasn’t going to the trouble to get back into her Sibyl disguise.
Stifling a sigh, she rose and said, “That’s all right Kathleen, you did just fine. I’ll see what he wants.” As she followed her up the back steps she prayed that Mr. Nathaniel Dawson brought good news, because she wasn’t sure she could stand any more bad news today.
When Annie followed Kathleen into the drawing room she saw a tall, lean young man, perhaps in his late twenties or early thirties, standing in front of the fireplace. For a second after Kathleen had done her duty by announcing “Mrs. Fuller” and then withdrawn, Annie and the stranger stared at each other in silence. He wore the requisite tailored black evening clothes of a gentleman, although the coat was cut a bit looser than was the fashion of the day. His thick dark hair, unusually long, covered his ears and the whiteness of his starched collar contrasted starkly with the rich brown tones of his skin.
When she was six, her father dissolved his brokerage firm and moved his family from San Francisco to the outskirts of Los Angeles in the hope the southern climate would help his ailing wife. Looking at the stranger, she was forcibly reminded of the tall, tanned, taciturn men that had helped her father run their ranch. The clean-shaven state of his face was highly unusual. It became him, she thought. It would have been a shame to hide the defined jaw or the high cheekbones that complemented his dark brown eyes. Eyes that were glaring directly into her own.
Abruptly conscious of her rudeness in staring, Annie glanced downward, feeling her face grow hot. Then, eager to cover her embarrassment, she moved forward, her hand extended in greeting.
She recoiled in surprise when the man exclaimed, “My God, you are so young! What the hell are you doing running an establishment like this!”
She stiffened and withdrew her proffered hand. How dare he challenge her authority, in her own home? Who was he anyway? His clothes and bearing might have been that of a gentleman, but his manners certainly weren’t.
Annie lifted her chin and replied with some asperity, “Excuse me, Sir. I am not too young to run any sort of establishment I please. I suppose that you are the kind of man who believes that women are incapable of conducting business. I have no patience with that attitude. Would you please state your purpose here, if you indeed have any?”
The man gave a short bark of laughter that contained no mirth and said in an exaggerated drawl, “Well now, clearly looks can be deceiving, Ma’am. I’ll be glad to leave as soon as you tell me how to reach the woman called Sibyl. I have a number of questions to ask her about a Mr. Matthew Voss.”
This statement completely mystified her. Why would a lawyer connected with Mr. Voss want to interview Sibyl, and why would he question whether she was old enough to run a boarding house? Maybe this man was a close friend or relative of Mr. Voss, and perhaps extreme grief prompted his odd behavior.
With that thought, Annie moderated her tone somewhat. “Mr. Dawson, I am sure Madam Sibyl would be very glad to speak to you about Mr. Voss. She valued him highly as a client and is very upset at his sudden passing. But you must understand that, as a professional, she never takes walk-in business. It’s late, and it would be much better for you to make an appointment for one of her regular consultations. I believe she could see you at nine o’clock tomorrow morning.”
She looked at him hopefully. “Or, if this is not convenient, perhaps you should write her a note about the nature of your business.”
Her attempt to placate Mr. Dawson apparently had the opposite effect. By the soft lamplight, Annie could see his jaw clench, and he grew very still.
”A professional? She gives consultations, you say? That’s a new euphemism for what she does, isn’t it? I guess it is a useful blind for businessmen who are trying to cheat on their wives, though most professionals of her sort work late at night don’t they? Well, you just tell your Madam Sibyl that I don’t want a consultation, even though I am quite sure she gives good value for the money. I am the lawyer representing Mr. Voss’s estate, and, unlike her other clients, I just want to speak with her. But it must be tonight.”
As the meaning of the lawyer’s words sank in, Annie experienced the distinct impression that the floor had tilted under her. A real earthquake couldn’t have surprised her more. This man thought that Sibyl was some sort of a prostitute. A prostitute!
The idea was so unexpected and absurd that she felt a laugh begin to well up, but before it could surface a second thought replaced her amusement with cold fury. If this idiotic man thought Sibyl was a prostitute, what did he think she was, the owner of a brothel? Of course, that was exactly what he thought! That would explain his earlier comment about me being too young to run this sort of establishment.
Literally speechless with rage, she stood for a minute trying to figure out how to respond. How could he have possibly made this mistake? How could she possibly explain to him the mistake without subjecting herself to further embarrassment? She should just leave the room. But she couldn’t just let the misunderstanding continue. And she still wanted to know what business he had with Sibyl.
The sounds of voices in the front hall broke the silence and indicated that two of her boarders had just entered the house. This gave her an idea, and she acted swiftly. Trying to keep her voice as neutral as possible, she said as she crossed over to the door that led into the hallway, “If you insist, I will get Madam Sibyl for you. Please wait in here until the maidservant comes to direct you to her.”
The couple standing in the front hallway, being assisted by Kathleen in the removal of their wraps, were Annie’s prize boarders, the Steins. Mr. Herman Stein was a prosperous city merchant and banker, and his wife, Esther, was on the board of virtually dozens of local charity organizations. They had been very good friends of her Uncle Timothy and Aunt Agatha, and they had welcomed her when she moved back to San Francisco, over a year and a half ago. Because Mr. Stein was away so much on business, and Mrs. Stein no longer wanted the time-consuming care of running an entire household herself, they had been delighted to become the occupants of Annie’s most elegant upstairs suite of rooms. Mr. Stein had also been very supportive of her decision to set up as Madam Sibyl.
The Steins, both in their mid-sixties, radiated a sense of well-being. Mr. Stein, almost entirely bald, more than made up for this loss of hair by the luxuriousness of the sideburns, mustache, and beard that bloomed below. Esther Stein’s hair was now pure white and tightly braided into an intricate circlet that defied dislodging by stray Bay winds or the exploring fingers of grandchildren. Both were dressed in quiet elegance, but the cut of the clothes of both testified to their greater love of rich food and comfort than of fashion. Annie suspected that Beatrice’s excellent reputation as a cook had been almost as important in their decision to move into her boarding house as had been their desire to help out the niece of old friends.
Breaking into their usual good-natured greetings, Annie whispered urgently, “Please, could you do me very great favor? In the drawing room there is a young lawyer, Mr. Nathaniel Dawson. He has come to see Sibyl, something about the death of Matthew Voss. Mr. Dawson seems to have gotten an entirely wrong impression of everything. Could you please go in and introduce yourselves and perhaps impress upon him the respectability of both this establishment and Madam Sibyl? He has met me as Mrs. Fuller, but I am going to change into Sibyl. For now I don’t want him to realize the connection. I’ll explain later.”
Esther Stein laughed and said, “Oh Annie, what mischief are you up to now? Of course, we will go in and vouch for you. But if you mistrust this young man’s intentions, maybe Herman should go into your interview with you?”
Herman Stein broke in at this point. “Young Nate Dawson? His father’s a rancher outside of San Jose, but he’s in his uncle’s law firm. Good, respectable firm. I’ve not met the young fellow. Harvard law degree. I’ve heard he’s a go-getter, but with a good head on his shoulders. Whatever would he want with Madam Sibyl?”
Mr. Stein frowned for a moment. “Well, in any case, I don’t think we need worry about leaving our Annie alone with him, Esther. He may be part of this new modern generation, but he will be a gentleman all the same.”
Annie wasn’t so sure about that, but, then again, she wasn’t sure she would be acting like a lady in their upcoming meeting, so she didn’t quibble. Instead, she profusely thanked both of the Steins and ran up the stairs to change out of her dress and begin her transformation into Madam Sibyl, one extremely angry clairvoyant.