Uneasy Spirits: 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.
Copyright © 2011 by Mary Louisa Locke Cover design © 2011 Michelle Huffaker
San Francisco, 1879
Why hasn’t that good-for-nothing boy come up to get me ready for bed yet? The hall clock just chimed quarter past nine! Eighty-four years old and I can still hear everything that goes on in this house. There! Sounds like he just knocked something over, down in the parlor. Probably he’s smashed up all my pretty treasures by now. Counting on me never making it downstairs again. Hah! Well, son, you have a surprise coming to you. Next fine day, I’ll holler down to the garden for Manny and get him to come up here and use those muscles of his to carry me all round the house. See what mischief you’ve been up to. I’ll make you pay for everything you’ve damaged.
Won’t I make you pay! You and that young wife of yours, too. Haven’t seen hide nor hair of her since noon. A blessing, really. Watching her gallivanting around the place like she owns it. Makes me sick. She can’t keep house worth a damn. Lets the tradesmen and that thieving cook take advantage of her. That’s why the housekeeping money don’t last! Between the two of you, robbing me blind.
I never should have let you move back in when your pa got so sick. That was a mistake. But he wanted his son nearby, didn’t he? Wanted to keep an eye on how you were running the company is more like it. If just one of the other boys had lived, oh things’d be different. Six sons, and the sorriest one of them all is the only one that outlasted their pa. If Zeke just hadn’t gotten killed in that brawl. Now that was a man who loved his mother. He wouldn’t have left me up here all alone. It’s time for my heart pills and I want to go to bed!
Wedged in a massive wing-backed chair facing the fireplace, the old woman fretfully moved her head from side to side. The few glowing embers in the grate left the room in near darkness, except where the glow from the gas fixture in the hallway showcased the porcelain figurines of shepherds and shepherdesses preening across the top of a mahogany dresser. Ropes of pearls cascaded down the front of the stiff satin dress that stretched over the woman’s colossal frame. Wispy white hair capped a face of concentric soft circles, from her multiple chins to the drooping round hole of her mouth. But the pale cold eyes that glittered in the faint light ruined any illusion of amiability.
She suddenly raised an elegant wooden cane and began to pound furiously on the floor, setting every piece of jewelry and china to prancing. Just as abruptly, she stopped and cocked her head, the silence filled by her ragged breathing.
There, I hear you coming up the stairs. Forgot me, didn’t you, sonny boy? Left me to freeze up here. How many times have I told you, my poor feet can’t take the cold evening air? But now you’ve let my fire go out, and it will take forever for me to warm up. It’s Nurse’s night off and good riddance to her, sneaky thieving woman, but that means you or that good-for-nothing wife of yours will just have to rub my feet for me tonight, won’cha!
What are you waiting for? Think I can’t hear you standing out in the hallway? You know it’s past time for my pills; I can hardly breathe. Dr. Hodges told you how important it is to give them to me on time. Too scared to come in by yourself, are you? Want me to say ‘pretty please?’ I wouldn’t give you the satisfaction.
That’s better, come right on in and quit trying to sneak up on me. I know that trick, always trying to frighten me to death. There you go, ran right into the end of the bed, you clumsy oaf. Now, why are you just standing there breathing down my neck? Irritating boy. You just come around in front where I can see you and I’ll rap you one with my . . . What are you doing? Stop it! No, no, get that away, I can’t brea . . .
The pillow was carefully placed on the floor, the clock in the hallway struck nine-thirty, the last ember snuffed out, and the Dresden figurines stared silently as hundreds of tiny pearls clattered softly to the carpet.
Across town, a young girl sat in the attic in a large armchair, her face in deep shadow. A shaft of moonlight from one of the two eastern facing windows cut diagonally across her chest, revealing multiple loops of colored beads that fell down to her waist. Her feet dangled, not touching the floor. In her arms lay a china doll, whose painted frozen features exhibited more life than could be found in her own face.
A song issued tunelessly from those rigid lips.
“Hot cross buns, Hot cross buns! One ha’ penny, two ha’ penny, hot cross buns. If you have no daughters, give them to your sons. One ha’ penny, two ha’ penny, Hot Cross Buns! Hot Cross . . .”
The girl straightened and pointed, her index finger contorted in a grotesque fashion. “You stop it right now.” Her voice, despite a quaver, was sharp and strong, and its force twisted her face into a mask of fury. “I see what you did. I see everything. You can never hide from me . . . stop . . .” The girl clutched at her chest, and the beads broke, cascading to the floor. The girl slumped, again immobile, humming.
“Hot cross buns, hot cross buns, one ha’penny . . .”
Saturday Morning, October 11, 1879
Madam Sibyl, Clairvoyant, specializing in business and domestic advice. 436 O’ Farrell Street. Consultations by appointment only, fee $2.
—San Francisco Chronicle, 1879
Annie Fuller leaned across to stare at the woman’s hands resting palms up on the dark green velvet tablecloth in front of her. She picked up the right hand and slowly traced the client’s heart, head, and life lines, struggling to find some words of comfort to extract from these faint creases that crisscrossed Mrs. Crenshaw’s plump palms. Stalling, she picked up the left hand. She turned the hand over, noting that the gold wedding band and modest diamond engagement ring were becoming embedded in the flesh of the ring finger and that the hand was cold and dry.
“You are still having trouble breathing, aren’t you, Mrs. Crenshaw? Did you try the extra pillows, as I suggested last week?” asked Annie.
“Oh, yes, Madam Sibyl, I did, and, just as you foretold, I have slept so much easier,” Mrs. Crenshaw replied.
Annie glanced up, sudden suspicion sharpening her voice. “You did return to see Dr. Hammersmith, didn’t you? Remember what I told you; the science of palmistry is not incompatible with the science of human physiology. What I learn from reading your palms and what Dr. Hammersmith learns from listening to your heart with his stethoscope can both be of use to you.”
Mrs. Silas Crenshaw, a fashionably dressed woman in her late sixties, turned her head away for a moment. She then sighed and said, “I saw him, but he doesn’t do me any good. He just tells me to be patient. He says a woman my age shouldn’t expect to come back quickly from a bout of pneumonia. What he won’t tell me is when I can travel to Iowa to meet my new grandbaby. You know how I long to see my daughter and that precious child. He will be six months old in December. My husband is quite determined we should wait until my cough is entirely gone, and Dr. Hammersmith refuses to advise him that I am well enough to travel. So I need you to tell me what is going to happen. There are arrangements to be made; Mr. Crenshaw can’t just leave for a month at a moment’s notice. Please, when will I be well enough to visit my daughter?”
Annie turned Mrs. Crenshaw’s hand back over to trace her Mercury line, which if she really did believe in palmistry would reveal information about Mrs. Crenshaw’s future health. Annie, however, didn’t believe in palmistry, and it didn’t take clairvoyance to tell her that the woman in front of her was unlikely to get well enough to spend Christmas in Iowa with her new grandson. But clairvoyance is what Madam Sibyl promised in her newspaper advertisement, and clairvoyance is what Mrs. Crenshaw expected for her $2 fee. This was a problem, since Annie Fuller, in addition to being a respectable widow and boarding house owner, was also Madam Sibyl.
After her husband John’s death, she had spent five wretched years being shunted between various branches of his family back east, finally coming west to settle in San Francisco, where she had inherited a house from her only remaining blood relative, her Aunt Agatha. Despite turning this grand old home into a boarding house, she found she still wasn’t financially independent, and Annie had turned to the only other way of making a living she knew, giving business advice. Although she had been trained by her father, one of the most successful stock brokers in New York or San Francisco history, Annie had discovered the only way a twenty-six year old female was going to get paid for her knowledge and expertise was if she pretended she got her information from reading her clients’ palms or casting their horoscopes.
Hence the invention of her alter ego, Madam Sibyl. She had added domestic advice to Madam Sibyl’s offerings, hoping she would also attract female clients. For the last year she had been gratifyingly successful in not only helping a number of local businessmen begin to recoup their losses from the panic and depression of the seventies, but also helping a number of women better manage their household finances, their domineering mothers-in-law, and their neglectful husbands. Mrs. Crenshaw, however, was different, and with each visit Annie felt increasingly uncomfortable with the charade she was playing.
The wig of intricate black curls she wore as part of her Madam Sibyl disguise felt unbearably tight and hot. Normally the small parlor in which she and Mrs. Crenshaw sat, with its velvet curtains and dim lighting, provided an inviting haven of coolness, but not today. As it was nearly noon, the fog had burned off, and, although it was the middle of October, the unusual heat of early fall persisted. The incipient headache that had hovered all morning finally attacked as Annie anxiously searched for an appropriate answer to Mrs. Crenshaw’s question.
She touched the barely visible horizontal lines along the outer edge of Mrs. Crenshaw’s palm that detailed a person’s travels and said, “Mrs. Crenshaw, I believe the difficulty I am having in reading the answer to your question is that it is really two questions. First, you want to know when you will regain your health. You also want to know when you will get to see your daughter and grandson.”
This is ridiculous, Annie thought. How can she come week after week, asking the same questions, getting the same vague answers from me? That damned doctor should have told her the truth; she isn’t getting better, she is getting worse.
Mrs. Crenshaw’s hand trembled, and Annie could hear the soft liquidity of her shallow breaths as the older woman said, “Please, Madam Sibyl. I need to know. I’ve told you about how Mr. Crenshaw and I had become resigned to never having children when we were blessed with our lovely prairie rose, Sharon. Such a miracle and delight, though she worried us when she was young, seemed each winter she was so poorly. I hated it when Silas decided we needed to move out here, leave the farm to Sharon and her new husband, but he promised we could visit whenever I wanted. And now with the new baby … I just need to be there!”
Mrs. Crenshaw had first come to see Madam Sibyl last June, right after she got the letter from her daughter announcing she was nearly eight months pregnant. If Mrs. Crenshaw had had her way, she would have gotten right on a train to be with her daughter during the last month of her confinement. Yet her husband had told her that she shouldn’t risk infecting her daughter or the new baby with one of her persistent colds. Mrs. Crenshaw had sought out Madam Sibyl, hoping she could foretell if her daughter would have a successful delivery without her.
At the time Annie had wondered if her daughter’s delay in notifying her mother about the pregnancy and her husband’s reluctance to let her travel reflected their belief that Mrs. Crenshaw’s anxious personality would make her more of a burden than a help during this delicate time. Now she believed the real reason was the family’s concern about Mrs. Crenshaw’s health because Annie was convinced it was a dying woman who sat before her, a woman whose heart had probably been failing for a good many years.
“Madam Sibyl, what do you see when you look at my palm? Why aren’t you telling me what you see? I deserve the truth,” Mrs. Crenshaw said, pulling her hand from Annie in order to scrabble for a handkerchief to press against the coming cough.
Annie watched helplessly as the older woman struggled to regain her breath. She thought about the distressing number of dying women she had attended in her peripatetic shuffling from one in-law to another after her husband John’s death: the ninety-year-old grandmother whose last days were a peaceful shutting down of each organ, the twenty-two-year-old new mother whose body burned itself out from a puerperal fever, the aunt of enormous appetites whose life had seeped away through her gangrenous extremities.
However, Mrs. Crenshaw’s blue-tinged lips, the swollen hands that contradicted her loss of weight, and the labored cough . . . these she had observed only once before, when she was twelve and her own mother lay dying. No one had been willing to tell her the truth fourteen years ago, and so Annie had agreed to leave her mother and travel up north to San Francisco to visit her Aunt Agatha. Her mother had died and been buried in the hot dry Los Angeles winds before she had been able to make it back home.
With searing clarity, Annie knew she couldn’t lie anymore to this woman. She rose and went over to the small sideboard, where she poured Mrs. Crenshaw a cup of tea, putting in the three lumps of sugar the older woman liked. After Mrs. Crenshaw had sipped her tea and gotten her breathing under control, Annie again leaned over and picked up the left hand, beginning to speak in the low, singsong tones Madam Sibyl often used when “giving a reading.”
“Mrs. Crenshaw, the truth I see written in your hand is one I believe you already know. Your Mercury line confirms what your life line foretells: that your heart is wearing out, and death, as is true for us all, is your fate. As with any glimpse we are given into the future, the timing is not precise. Yet you have been given the gift of foreknowledge, and your character is such that I know that you will embrace this truth to shape your own destiny.”
Mrs. Crenshaw’s hand clenched hers, and Annie’s words faltered. She squeezed the hand she had been holding, placed it gently down on the table, and took up the right hand, finding the light horizontal lines that intersected with the vertical Mercury line.
“I do not see any more travel in your future, but I do see visitors. I see your daughter sitting beside you in your parlor, which is all decorated for Christmas. I see you holding your adorable grandson, all wrapped up in that lovely blue blanket you have been knitting for him. Finally, I see your bravery in accepting your illness, thereby permitting your family to come together to celebrate every moment you have left in your life.”
Annie found both of her hands clasped spasmodically between Mrs. Crenshaw’s own as the woman’s soft sobs filled the room.
What have I done? Annie shifted nervously in her seat. Poor woman, I’m not a doctor and I am certainly not clairvoyant. I have to tell her I am a sham; I can’t possibly know what the future holds for her.
She forced herself to look up, but Mrs. Crenshaw’s face stunned her. The older woman was certainly crying, but there was a watery smile emerging as her sobs stilled, and the pinched frown that usually marred the genuine sweetness of her expression had disappeared.
Mrs. Crenshaw pulled her hands from Annie’s, blew her nose, and began to talk excitedly. “Madam Sibyl, thank you. Of course I know I am dying, that is why I so wanted to make this trip. It might be the last time I can see my daughter. But I was afraid to tell Silas this. I have found men don’t deal well with bad news; I am sure in your business you have found this so. I just don’t know why I never thought of asking my daughter to come here! But of course she will be able to come; it will be good for her and the child to be out of Iowa during the worst winter months. Her husband, Stephen, such a good man, will not begrudge me this visit. Perhaps he can get someone to take over the farm for a month so he can be here for Christmas, too. Oh, dear, there are so many plans to be made. Silas will grumble at the expense, but how can he say no to his dying wife? I must get home. I swear, this has given me a new lease on life!”
Later, after the boarding house’s cheerful young Irish maid, Kathleen, had ushered a still animated Mrs. Crenshaw out of the parlor, Annie stood at the small washstand in the back room and jerked the wig off of her head, hoping to release the pressure that had built to an intolerable level. She poured water into a plain white enamel basin and, dipping a washcloth into the water, began to pat at her face. She longed to plunge her whole face into the water, but she couldn’t afford to let the precious elderberry paste she had used to darken her eyelashes and eyebrows be washed away. She tugged down the bodice of her severely cut black silk and tried to ease the restrictive tightness of her corset. She had two hours to rest, but then she had three more clients to meet today.
Annie stared at her reflection in the mirror, poking ineffectually at the mess she had made of her braided hair by pulling off the wig so precipitously. How pale I look, she thought, as she tucked a reddish blond curl back into place. You would think I was the one who was at death’s door. What if Silas Crenshaw comes here demanding to know how I could tell his wife she is dying? What do I say? I don’t even have the excuse that I believe in any of the rigmarole I spout. How much longer can I keep all this up? I’m just not sure what I am doing anymore, and I am so tired.