A Victorian San Francisco Mystery
By M. Louisa Locke
Copyright © 2013 by Mary Louisa Locke
All rights reserved.
Cover design © 2013 Michelle Huffaker
All rights reserved.
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. Chapter quotes, unless otherwise noted, come from the San Francisco Chronicle.
Wednesday, late afternoon, January 7, 1880
“It takes double the capacity, ingenuity, patience and experience to teach a child five years old that it does one of ten.” ––Mr. Slade, Quincey Board of Education speaking at the California State Teacher’s Association, San Francisco Chronicle, 1880
Laura Dawson surveyed the row of long division problems she had written on the blackboard. Noting the blurring of a number in the third problem, she frowned, took the eraser, and scrubbed away the offending numeral, replacing it with a neatly written seven that could not be misinterpreted as a one. Thank goodness San Francisco’s Clement Grammar School was only four years old, so the slate board that filled the entire back of the room didn’t have the chips and scratches that marred the board in the Cupertino Creek School, the rural one-room school west of San Jose where she taught this past fall. Picking up a list of words from her desk, she began copying them carefully onto the board. For some reason, words she had known how to spell since she was five came out wrong when she wrote them for all to see, and she wanted to avoid the humiliation she’d felt back at Cupertino Creek when the pert seven-year-old Daisy pointed out her errors to the whole class, accompanied by the snickers of seventeen-year-old Buck Morrison, who slouched insolently in the last row.
Laura hadn’t admitted to anyone how badly her first teaching assignment had gone. None of the lectures on pedagogy at the San Jose Normal School had prepared her for how difficult it was to maintain discipline when a one-room school held thirty students, ranging from a five-year-old who couldn’t sit still for more than fifteen minutes to a seventeen-year-old with the body of a man and the maturity of a boy half his age. Then there was the local wildlife that would drop by just as she got everyone settled down to work at their slates. She shuddered at the memory of the mother skunk that had constructed her nest under the floorboards.
The school board examiner had given her a commendation for her pupils’ progress, but she thought that this gentleman was mostly impressed she’d stuck out the full term, something the last two teachers failed to do. Perhaps he hoped if he praised her enough she would stay on. Laura felt a twinge of guilt, because that commendation had helped pave the way for her new position, teaching a seventh grade class at the Clement Grammar in San Francisco. However, she was determined to do better with this new job, which was why she was still hard at work preparing for tomorrow’s class. This was only the third day of the term, but it was the first time she had sent the students home with an assignment. She hoped they would be ready for the math test she had planned for the beginning of class tomorrow.
“Miss Dawson, are you ready to go? Mother said we should be home before five because it gets dark so early.”
Laura started and turned. Smiling at the young boy who grinned at her from the doorway, she said, “Good heavens, Jamie, you are quite right. If we aren’t careful, your mother will be home before us. We need to get going. Were you able to finish helping Miss Chesterton with her maps?”
“Yes, Miss, and I finished most of my homework, so I’ll have time to play with Dandy in the back yard after dinner.” Jamie raised the battered yellow book he was carrying, and Laura recognized the Third Reader.
Since Jamie was only in the fifth grade and most of her seventh graders were only beginning this text, she deduced that the nine-year-old was an excellent student, not unexpected since his mother taught English literature and composition at San Francisco’s Girls’ High. Jamie Hewitt and his mother, Barbara, lived in one of the attic rooms of Mrs. Fuller’s O’Farrell Street boarding house where Laura now resided. Because she hadn’t had much occasion to get acquainted with Mrs. Hewitt, she had been surprised when Jamie’s mother asked her yesterday if she would mind walking home with her son on Wednesdays. Evidently, she was the faculty sponsor of the Literature and Debate society that met after school on that day, keeping her quite late.
“Shouldn’t take us but five minutes to get home,” Laura remarked as she gathered up the pile of books sitting on the corner of the desk. “Thank goodness it is all downhill; I’m not used to being on my feet all day.” Laura slid the books into the leather satchel her parents gave her when she graduated from the Normal School last May. Threading her way through the rows of student desks, she carefully skewered her small curly-brimmed brown hat on her head with a hat pin and then took the matching light-wool cloak from the peg at the back of the room. She shrugged into the cloak as she turned to check that she’d left the classroom in good order. Pulling on her gloves, she left the door open and the lights on as she had been instructed so the janitor, Mr. Ferguson, could clean the room. As she and Jamie walked down the long gas-lit hallway to stairs at the center of the building, she saw that all the other classroom doors on the third floor were shut, which probably meant that Mr. Ferguson was now working on the second floor classrooms. She hoped she hadn’t inconvenienced him by staying late.
Once at the school’s entrance, she pushed the heavy front door open and stopped, enchanted by the sight of Geary Street transformed by fog. Monday and Tuesday, the first two days of the term, she had noticed that Geary, one of the city’s main thoroughfares, was very crowded and noisy at this time of evening. Businessmen headed west on foot and in hansom cabs to their firesides in the Western Addition, while a stream of wagons, carts, and day laborers went in the opposite direction towards downtown. Tonight, the combination of twilight and fog muted the usual rattle of harnesses, clip clop of hooves, and human voices. Instead, on sidewalk and street, ghostly shapes passed each other, with only the flickering shaft of gas light at the corner of Jones Street providing proof of their corporality.
“My stars, Miss, can’t see your hand in front of your face!” Jamie exclaimed, as he crammed a cap on his light brown curls. “I hope my mother is already home. She hates fog something awful. Said it reminds her of the blizzards from when she was growing up.”
“Blizzards! I never thought of them being similar. We had lots of fog on the ranch where I grew up east of San Jose. Sometimes you would just have to let the horse find the way home. But snow so thick you couldn’t see, that would be frightening. Where about did your mother grow up?” asked Laura.
There was silence, and Laura glanced down at Jamie, puzzled to see his brown eyes slide away from hers, as if he were embarrassed.
“Oh, somewhere back east,” he finally replied, shrugging.
They reached Jones Street and turned right, which would take them down the gentle incline towards O’Farrell Street where the boarding house was located. My new home, Laura thought, although she wasn’t sure why, never having considered the private houses she had lived in while she attended the Normal School as home. Maybe that was because most weekends she usually went back to her parents’ ranch, located just over an hour by horseback east of San Jose.
She certainly hadn’t considered the series of houses she’d boarded in last fall as home. There were eight families with children in the small Cupertino Creek district, and part of her salary came in the form of room and board from each of them. This meant moving every two weeks to live with a new family. The bed bugs in one house, the unwashed sheets in another, and the uncomfortable sofa that she had been expected to sleep on in one home had been bad enough, but nothing had prepared her for what happened in the last house when…
“Come, Miss, we best hot-foot it across O’Farrell while the road’s clear.” Jamie grabbed her hand, his sunny nature having reasserted itself. He pulled her swiftly across the street, well clear of the wagon that was materializing out of the fog. “Shall we cross Jones here? I always go down to the alley, so’s I can go in the back way. Unless you have a key and want to go in the front?”
Laura shook off the bad memories and smiled, telling Jamie the back way would be fine. She let the boy escort her safely across Jones, and they turned right to go the half block to the alley. Annie Fuller, the young widow who owned the boarding house, had given her a key to the front door, but the thought of going in through the kitchen was appealing. Beatrice O’Rourke, the cook and housekeeper, had been very welcoming on Monday when she arrived home from her first day of teaching. Mrs. O’Rourke, a stout motherly woman with a lyrical Irish brogue, had given Laura a cup of tea while peppering her with questions about her day. Everyone in the boarding house was very friendly. Even the ancient ladies who lived in the attic across from the Hewitts fussed over her at dinner. Well, one of them did; the other just smiled sweetly and nodded. Hard to imagine that only twelve days ago she had been sitting in her parents’ kitchen, reading a letter from her friend Hattie that told her there was a teaching position waiting for her up in San Francisco if she wanted it.
She had jumped at the chance! She’d already obtained the highest level California Teaching Certificate, which qualified her to teach in any California school, and Annie Fuller, who was visiting the ranch, had immediately offered to rent her a room. Laura’s older brother, Nate, was courting Annie, and he’d brought her to the ranch right after Christmas to meet his family. Laura was delighted with Annie’s offer, and Nate solemnly assured his parents that he and Mrs. Fuller would both keep an eye on her. They stressed how close Clement Grammar was to Annie’s boarding house and the respectability of the other boarders, including the wealthy businessman Mr. Herman Stein and his wife Esther who occupied the suite of rooms across the hall from where Laura would be staying.
Laura was rather glad Nate hadn’t felt the need to mention that Annie supplemented her income from the boarding house by working as a clairvoyant named Madam Sibyl who pretended to draw on supernatural powers when giving investment advice to prominent San Francisco businessmen. Laura’s father had been upset enough over his daughter not completing a full year of teaching at the Cupertino Creek School, muttering about obligations. Because Laura had already confided to her mother her unhappiness at Cupertino, Mrs. Dawson quickly supported the move to San Francisco. Her father then capitulated, as he usually did, deferring to her mother.
So, here she was, where she had always hoped to be, living and working in San Francisco. Jamie moved ahead of her now that traffic on the sidewalk had thinned, reaching the alley that ran behind the section of O’Farrell Street where the boarding house was located. When he turned to look back at her, she smiled and made shooing motions, indicating he should run ahead. No doubt the boy was anxious to play with Dandy, his small snub-nosed terrier. As he disappeared around the corner, Laura speculated about why this particular row of houses had gotten an alleyway, which was pretty rare as far as she could determine, at least in this section of San Francisco. Someone of importance must have built here in the fifties, someone with the money to keep their own stables and horses and require a back entrance.
By the time she reached the opening to the alley, Jamie had been swallowed up by the fog, which seemed impenetrable here away from the street lamps. Picking her way slowly down what felt like a country path, hemmed in as it was by the tall back hedges from the houses on either side, Laura wondered if she would have a letter from Hattie today. Hattie Wilks had been her best friend at San Jose Normal School, and Laura always hoped they would end up teaching in the same school. In fact, Hattie’s first job was at Clement Grammar, and when Laura heard from Hattie about the mid-year opening in San Francisco, she thought they would now be colleagues. It was only when she arrived at her interview at Clement Grammar that she learned the opening was actually for Hattie’s job. Hattie had resigned, recommending that Laura be hired as her replacement. She’d written to Hattie as soon as she got home from the interview, asking her what had happened. That was five days ago. Still no answer from Hattie. Maybe in today’s mail…
Laura’s thoughts scattered as a body slammed into her, knocking her to her knees. Drat this fog, I must have run into someone.
Muttering an apology, she was reaching for her fallen satchel when she felt arms around her waist, jerking her up and backwards. Struggling against what felt like a nightmare become real, Laura clawed at the arms holding her. But the man was too strong. Her ribs felt like they were cracking, and she couldn’t get away from his filthy words.
“Bitch, you stupid bitch. Did you think I wouldn’t find where you lived? You ruined my life, and you’ll have to pay.”