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.