Halloween is fast approaching, and I thought it might be fun to put up an excerpt from Uneasy Spirits, the second book in my Victorian San Francisco Mystery series. This is a chapter near the end of the book where the main protagonist, Annie Fuller (a boarding house owner who supplements her income as a clairvoyant, Madam Sibyl), is taking a walk with two of her boarders (Barbara Hewitt and her son Jamie) and one of my favorite characters, their Boston Terrier, Dandy.
Tuesday evening, October 28, 1879
“No Fun for the rats. A ratting match for $200 took place the other evening in a well-known sporting resort…The dogs were the imported bull-terriers ‘Crib’…and ‘Flow.’”
—San Francisco Chronicle, 1879
“Jamie, hold tight to Dandy’s leash. I don’t want any rat-catching tonight,” said his mother, Barbara Hewitt, who then glanced over the boy’s head at Annie and smiled.
Jamie’s mother, a tall, statuesque brunette who taught English literature at Girls High, had moved into Annie’s boarding house with her young son last January. Most evenings and weekends, she was either working on grading the mountains of papers her students seemed to produce or supervising Jamie in his own homework. She did try, however, to spend a little time each evening with her son, walking Dandy. Tonight, when Annie ran into them coming down the stairs to the kitchen, Barbara had asked Annie if she would join them on their walk.
Annie had been very pleased. A brisk walk was precisely what she needed. Today had been a difficult one for Madam Sibyl. Not only had she seen seven of her regular Tuesday clients, but two others who had canceled last week had asked her to fit them in today at lunch time. Since they were two of her favorite clients, Annie had obliged. This had meant she had skipped lunch and had only time for a hasty dinner on a tray in Sibyl’s parlor, so that she wouldn’t have to take off the wig before the first evening client came.
In addition, the time she had been spending investigating the Framptons had been cutting into her ability to get through all the local and national newspapers, which is where she garnered most of her financial information. Thank goodness her clients themselves provided a good deal of expert opinion on San Francisco business trends, so that she had been able to do an adequate job. In her opinion, however, adequate wasn’t good enough. She found herself resenting the time it took to cast horoscopes for those clients who insisted her advice be presented in this form. Faking the use of palmistry was easier, but still increasingly distasteful. She just didn’t know what to do since she had no reason to expect that most of her clients would stay with her if she suddenly forswore Madam Sibyl.
“How are your students progressing?” Annie asked, trying to distract herself from that gloomy thought. The warmth of the sunny day had begun to drain away with the setting of the sun, and they had decided to head down Taylor to Turk, then west to Leavenworth, and back up to O’Farrell, an easy ten-block circuit.
“They are quite excited because we are having a contest for the best poem written on the theme of All Hallow’s Eve. We have been studying Robert Burns’ poem, do you know it?”
“My, that brings back my days at the academy,” said Annie, who began to disclaim in her best Scottish brogue, “‘Amang the bonie winding banks, where Doon rins, wimplin, clear; where Bruce ance ruled the martial ranks, an’ shook his Carrick spear; some merry, friendly, country-folks together did convene, to burn their nits, an’ pou their stocks, an’ haud their Hallowe’en fu’ blythe that night.’”
“That was splendidly done, Mrs. Fuller,” exclaimed Barbara.
Annie laughed. “I guess I’ve always had a theatrical streak. The drama club was my favorite extracurricular activity in school. But, please, I asked you to call me Annie.”
“Yes, I’m sorry,” replied Jamie’s mother softly, “there is such formality among the teachers at Girls High that I have quite gotten out of the habit of using someone’s given name. Of course, I would be so pleased if you would call me . . . Barbara.”
Annie, struck by the way Barbara had paused before giving her first name, wondered if this had any significance. Since she and Jamie’s mother were both widowed, of a similar age, and both working to support themselves, there should be a natural affinity between them, but Annie really knew very little about Barbara Hewitt’s past. She never spoke about where she grew up, if she had any living relatives, or where she had taught before coming to San Francisco.
She certainly never mentioned her marriage, or what had happened to her husband. This reticence was so familiar to Annie that she couldn’t help speculating that the deceased Mr. Hewitt, like her own husband, hadn’t been the best of helpmeets. A distressing incident with a neighbor last month had finally forced Jamie’s mother to reach out to Annie. Since then, Annie had welcomed any opportunity, like the offer tonight, to become better acquainted.
They had just turned into Turk Street, which was lined with a variety of small businesses, when Jamie ran up to them and said with excitement, “Mother, look at that pile of pumpkins! Can we buy one? Mr. Chapman said he would help me carve a jack-o’-lantern for Halloween. Mrs. O’Rourke said there’s going to be a party!”
Barbara looked a question at Annie, who said, “I think that is an excellent idea. In fact, get two smaller ones as well; we can put them on the front porch for decoration. I forgot that the two of you weren’t here last year when we had our first ever All Hallow’s Eve party at the boarding house. Mrs. O’Rourke invited a number of her young relatives, and Kathleen’s brothers all came, in addition to a couple of her friends. And of course the boarders were welcome.”
Annie realized that she had been so preoccupied with her investigation of the Framptons she had neglected to discuss the upcoming festivities with Beatrice, and she was glad to hear that plans were moving forward anyway. When she was young, she had been fascinated by the ranch hands’ celebration of the Day of the Dead. And the girls at the female academy she had attended in New York had duly memorized Burns’ poem and giggled about the ghosts who rose from their graves on the last night of October.
But it wasn’t until last year’s party that she realized how many of the rituals associated with that night came from Ireland. No wonder Beatrice had been so pleased when she dropped off the walnuts they had bought at Hapgood’s yesterday. Annie’s mouth began to water when she thought of some of the tasty treats Beatrice had produced last year. She would have to think about whether she would still go to the séance on Friday since it would interfere with the party and Kathleen would be too busy to come with her that night. Perhaps, if she asked Nate to accompany her in Kathleen’s place, he would be less likely to object to her making one last attempt to conclude her investigation.
Annie noticed that Barbara was taking money from her purse to pay for the pumpkins Jamie had picked out, and she moved forward, saying, “Let me at least pay for the two smaller ones. Jamie, can you manage Dandy and carry this very impressive specimen you have chosen? We still have several blocks to go.” The boy had picked out a plump pumpkin, twice the size of his own head, and Dandy was twisting around his ankles, threatening to up-end him.
After making her contribution to the purchases, Barbara took the large pumpkin from her son and asked Annie if she would mind taking Dandy for the rest of the walk while Jamie carried the two smaller, future jack-o’-lanterns.
Taking the leash, Annie said, “I would be delighted. Dandy always makes me feel quite the lady when I walk with him.” The small black and white dog cocked his head and looked up at her, as if he understood every word, and then trotted smartly beside her as they continued on Turk towards Leavenworth.
This early in the evening, all the shops were still open. There was a good deal of foot traffic and delivery carts, whose ends jutted over the wooden sidewalk while their goods were off-loaded. As a result, their conversation halted as Annie carefully monitored Dandy, impressed by the way the diminutive dog wove neatly around every obstacle, his white front feet flashing in the light from the gas lamps. When they were almost to Leavenworth, Jamie again ran back to his mother, asking her if they could step into a used clothing shop.
“I thought if I could use some of my spending money I’d get an old hat to put on my pumpkin. Mr. Jack would look more true-to-life and scary and all,” he said, pointing at the stack of hats piled up on a cart outside the store.
Annie smiled at his enthusiasm. When his mother agreed to his request, she said to her, “Barbara, you go ahead with him. Put that big old pumpkin down, and Dandy and I will guard it with our lives while you help him pick out a suitable hat.”
Dandy seemed very interested in the large pumpkin that was now at her feet, snuffling lustily at it with his squashed-in nose. Annie had a sudden vision of him deciding to anoint it, so she bent over and scooped him up. He delightedly started licking her face.
“Oh, Dandy, that is quite enough. You are no gentleman, to give a lady such kisses on the public street,” Annie scolded and tried to hold him away from her. Although he didn’t weigh more than ten or twelve pounds, she feared his excited wiggling could cause her to drop him, so she bent over and placed him on the ground again, tightening her hold on the leash and hoping he had lost interest in the pumpkin.
He sat down and looked up at her, as if to say, now what game are we to play? Then, without warning, he began to bark frantically and pull her down the sidewalk. Despite his bantam size, she had no choice but to follow him because it was either that or jerk the poor fellow off his feet. After about a yard or so, she dug in her heels and successfully stopped him by scooping him back into her arms. Then a noise like rolling claps of thunder caused her to whip around, just in time to see the large wooden barrels piled high on a cart tumble down, crashing onto the sidewalk where she had just been standing. Crushing the pumpkin to smithereens.
If you want to learn more about Annie Fuller, and who is trying to kill her, do go buy Uneasy Spirits, and if you enjoyed Dandy, the Boston Terrier, you can read more about him in the first book in the series, Maids of Misfortune, and in the free short story Dandy Detects. I also wrote a blog piece last year about Halloween as it was celebrated in the late 19th century that you might be interested in called Uneasy Spirits and Halloween: Using Fact in support of Fiction.
M. Louisa Locke, October 23, 2012