New York City, July 1904
Satan finds work for idle hands to do. That was one of my mother’s favorite sayings if she ever caught me daydreaming or lying on my back on the turf, staring up at the white clouds that raced across the sky. I could almost hear her voice, with its strong Irish brogue, as I sat on the sofa and sipped a glass of lemonade on a hot July day.
Frankly, I rather wished that Satan would find me something to do with my idle hands because I was dying of boredom. All my life I’d been used to hard work, forced to care for my father and three young brothers after my mother went to her heavenly rest. (At least I presume that’s where she went. She certainly thought she deserved it.) And now, for the first time in my life, I was a lady of leisure. Ever since I found out I was in the family way, back in February, Daniel had treated me as if I was made of fine porcelain. For the first few months I was glad of his solicitous behavior toward me as I was horribly sick. In fact I began to feel more sympathy for my mother, who had gone through this at least four times. But then, at the start of the fourth month, a miraculous change occurred. I awoke one morning to find that I felt well and hungry and full of energy. Daniel, however, still insisted that I did as little as possible, did not exert myself, took no risks, and generally behave like one of those helpless females I so despised.
He wanted me to lie on the couch with my feet up and spend my days making little garments. I had tried to do this and the quality of my sewing and knitting had improved, but still left a lot to be desired. Besides, I knew that my mother-in-law was sewing away diligently and that my neighbors Sid and Gus would shower the child with expensive presents.
So this left long hours to be filled every day. Our little house on Patchin Place could be cleaned in a couple of hours. I did a little shopping, but Daniel’s job as a police captain meant that he was seldom home for lunch and sometimes not even for dinner, so little cooking was required. I was glad of this when the weather turned hot at the end of June as my growing bulk meant that I felt the heat badly. Daniel suggested that he could fend for himself just fine and I should go up to his mother in Westchester County, where I’d be cooler and well looked after. I didn’t say it out loud but I’d rather have endured a fiery furnace than a prolonged stay with Daniel’s mother. Not that she was an ogre or anything, but her standards of perfection and her social interactions with members of high society left me feeling hopelessly inadequate. I knew that she was disappointed that Daniel had not made a better match than an Irish girl with no money and no family connections.
She never actually came out and said this, but she made it plain enough. “I took tea with the Harpers yesterday,” she’d say. “I remember that one of the Harper girls was rather sweet on you at one time, Daniel. She’s gone on to make an excellent marriage with one of the Van Baarens. Her parents couldn’t be happier.” And then she’d look at me.
So I was prepared to endure any amount of heat rather than Daniel’s mother. I just wished these last months would hurry up and be over. I put down my lemonade glass and picked up the undershirt I had been attempting to sew. I could see sweaty fingerprints on the fine white cotton and several places where the stitches had been unpicked. I sighed. I just wasn’t cut out to be a seamstress. As a detective I hadn’t done at all badly, but that profession was now closed to me. Daniel had made me promise that I’d give up my agency when we married. I had hoped that Daniel would share his cases with me, that we’d sit at the kitchen table and he’d ask for my opinion. But he had claimed that his recent cases had been too commonplace to be worth discussing or else so confidential that he had to remain tight-lipped about them.
I looked up as the sun suddenly streamed in through the back parlor windows. A sunbeam lit the dust motes in the air and painted a stripe of brightness on the wallpaper. Now this room would soon be too hot for comfort and I’d be banished to the front parlor, dark and gloomy, until the sun set. I got up to draw the heavy velvet drapes across the window and noticed that the lace curtains looked rather dingy. That would never do. Having achieved lace curtains for the first time in my life, I should make sure that they remained a pristine white. I went into the kitchen and brought back a high-backed wooden chair. I proceeded to climb on this with some difficulty, then I reached up to unhook the first of the lace curtains.
I was at full stretch, standing on tiptoe, when a voice behind me boomed, “Molly! What in God’s name do you think you’re doing?”
“Jesus, Mary, and Joseph,” I exclaimed. I teetered, and would have fallen if I hadn’t grabbed at the velvet drape, which held fast. I looked around to see Daniel standing there with a face like thunder.
“The curtains needed washing.” I glared at him defiantly.
“You were risking the safety of our baby for the sake of clean curtains?” he demanded. He came over and helped me down from the chair. “You nearly fell, and what might have happened then?”
“It was only a voice suddenly shouting right behind me that made me lose my balance,” I said. “Until you showed up I was doing just fine.”
He looked at me more tenderly now. “Molly, how many times have I told you to take it easy. You’re in a delicate condition, my dear.”
“Nonsense. Women in Ireland have their babies one day and by the end of the week they’re out helping their man in the fields again.”
“And how many of those babies die? Your mother didn’t live long herself, did she?”
I chose not to acknowledge the truth in this. Instead I said breezily, “Daniel, I feel fine and I’m bored to tears doing nothing.”
He took my arm and led me back to the sofa. “Then invite some friends over to tea. I’ve introduced you to the wives of some of my colleagues, haven’t I? It’s about time you built up a circle of social acquaintances. And there are always your friends across the street,” he added grudgingly, not being as keen as I on my bohemian neighbors.
I sighed. “They’ve gone to stay with Gus’s relatives in Newport, Rhode Island, to escape the heat,” I said. “You remember the mansion with the Roman pillars.”
“Very well.” We’d spent our honeymoon in Newport and it had hardly gone as planned. Daniel pulled up the kitchen chair and sat beside me. “So why don’t you go to my mother as I suggested? You know she’d love to make a fuss of you, and feed you well, and it’s so much cooler out there.”
“Daniel, I’m your wife. My place is taking care of you,” I replied, not wanting to tell him the real reason. Isn’t it amazing what marriage does to a woman? I was finally learning to be diplomatic. I was one step away from being simpering.
“I can fend for myself quite well. I’ve been doing it for years.”
“But you work long hours, Daniel. It’s not right that you should come home to no supper and no clean clothes.”
He wagged a finger at me. “What have I been telling you for months? Then this is the perfect time to get a servant.”
I sighed. “Daniel, let’s not go through that again. We really don’t need a servant. This is a small house. I’m used to hard work. I’m happy to cook and clean for you, and for our baby too. If a few more children start to come along, then I may need some help, but for the present.…”
“It’s not just the amount of work, Molly. It’s the principle of the thing. A man in my position should have a servant. When we start entertaining more, it wouldn’t be right that you’d have to keep disappearing into the kitchen to see to the dinner. I want you to be the gracious hostess.”
“Oh, I see,” I said, my rising temper now winning out over my newfound meekness. “It’s not concern about me at all, is it? You’re worried about how you appear in the eyes of society.”
He looked at my expression and took my hand. “Molly, this is not for myself, it’s for us. Everything I do from now on is for my family. I want the best for us and for our children. I want to rise in the world, it’s true, and I’ll be judged on the kind of home I keep and the people I associate with.” He paused. “And I want the world to see that I married a beautiful woman.”
I had to smile at this. “You may have been born in America, Daniel Sullivan,” I said, “but you’ve certainly inherited your share of Irish blarney!”
He smiled too. “I am thinking of you, Molly. If you’re up all night with a crying baby, you’ll appreciate a girl taking over from you so you can get your rest. You say you’re bored and have nothing to do—well, what better time to train a servant so that she knows your wishes and how this household works by the time the baby arrives?”
I hesitated, then said, “Well, I suppose I could start making inquiries.”
He jumped to his feet. “I know,” he said. “Why don’t I write to my mother and ask for her help in this?”
Now my hackles truly were rising. “Why does your mother have to come into every aspect of our lives?” I demanded. “Do you not believe I’m capable of finding a servant for myself?”
“Of course you are. I’m simply trying to spare you extra toil and bother. I don’t want you traipsing around the city at this time of year. They say there is typhoid in Brooklyn this summer and who knows when that will spread across the East River. We can’t be too careful in your current condition.”
“Not all employment agencies are in bad neighborhoods,” I said. “I went to a snooty one myself when I was newly arrived here and needed work.”
He frowned. “I’m not sure we could pay the rates of a snooty agency. And I’m concerned that lesser agencies don’t always vet their girls well enough. I don’t like the idea of hiring a girl newly off the boat. How do we know she’ll be trustworthy?” He put a hand on my shoulder. “My mother knows the right sort of people, Molly. She’ll be able to ask around and get recommendations. New York is a big place and full of crooks and swindlers, as I know only too well. We have to be extra cautious about who we allow into our house. One of the gangs would just love to place an informant in my home and have my comings and goings monitored.”
“But surely, if I go through a reputable agency…” I began, but he cut me off. “Let’s try my mother first and see who she can come up with, shall we? Then you can go out to her to interview likely girls and choose the one you like.”
I wasn’t at all happy with this. If the gangs wanted to place a spy in our home to monitor Daniel’s movements then it was just as likely that Daniel’s mother would like to place her own spy to monitor mine. But I could hardly express that sentiment to Daniel. Men are funny about their mothers, seeing them as one step away from sainthood. So I told myself silently that I didn’t have to choose any girl I didn’t like and in the meantime I’d do my own asking around.
“I’ll write the letter now,” Daniel said, “if you’d be good enough to make me a quick bite to eat before I go back to work.”
With that he went through to his desk in the front parlor that had now become his study, and I went to my rightful place in the kitchen, trying to put aside thoughts that a woman’s lot in life was not a fair one. I made him a cold beef sandwich and some pickled cabbage, and was pouring him a glass of lemonade when he returned with the letter.
“This can go out with the three o’clock mail if you’ll take it to the post office for me.” He sat and worked his way quickly through the sandwich. “I may not be home until late tonight,” he said.
I pulled up a chair and sat opposite him. “Difficult case?” I asked, trying to sound casual.
“Several at once, that’s the problem. I like to devote all my energy to one thing at a time, not to be running hither and yon. But the powers that be have saddled me with something I’d rather avoid.”
“Maybe I can help,” I suggested. “If you’d care to discuss them with me.”
He shook his head. “Nothing to discuss. No clever murderers to be outwitted. Just various types of petty crooks making life unpleasant for the populace.” He pushed his plate away. “Very nice. Thank you, my dear. And you will make sure that letter gets to the post office, won’t you?” He kissed my forehead and was gone.
I cleared away the remains of the meal and looked at that letter lying on the table. I didn’t have to mail it, did I? But then I realized that I did. There has to be trust between husband and wife, however abhorrent it was to me that the task of finding my servant was being left to his mother. I glanced at the fruit bowl and saw that we were down to a single plum. Fruit was one of the things I’d been craving recently so I decided to treat myself to some peaches if I had to go out. I pinned my straw hat to my flyaway hair, put on my cotton gloves, and out I went.
The heat came up from the cobbles to hit me, almost as if someone had opened an oven door. I hugged the side of the alleyway that was in shade and made my way slowly to Sixth Avenue. I went into the post office and dropped the letter into the outgoing mail slot. I was about to leave when a large florid man leaned across the counter toward me.
“Excuse me, ma’am,” he said, “but weren’t you the young lady that used to collect the mail for P. Riley Associates?”
“That’s right,” I said, P. Riley Associates being the name of the small detective agency I had inherited after the murder of Paddy Riley. “But that agency is no more and the post office box has been closed.”
“I know that,” he said. “It’s just that a letter came in addressed to that establishment only a week or so ago, and I didn’t quite know what to do with it, no forwarding address having been left with us. So it’s still sitting there and I thought that maybe you’d know where to deliver it. Hold on a minute and I’ll fetch it for you.”
He disappeared into a back room and then returned, panting and red-faced, but triumphantly waving an envelope. “Here you are. So maybe you’ll see that the right party gets his mail then.”
“I will,” I said. “Thank you.”
With the letter in my gloved hand I went out into the heat of Sixth Avenue. I walked until I was standing in the shade of a sycamore tree before I stopped to examine it. Of course I knew that P. Riley Associates was no more, and that I had promised Daniel I would give up all such nonsense when I married him. That meant that I should throw the letter straight into the nearest rubbish bin. But then I told myself that it might be a belated payment for services rendered long ago and I couldn’t risk throwing good money away. I looked at the envelope and saw the stamp with King Edward’s head on it. From England then. I opened the envelope and found no money but a single sheet of cheap lined paper, such as one would find in an exercise book. I also saw from the address at the top that the letter came not from England but from Ireland, from County Cork.
Dear Sir or Madam:
We are but simple folk and can’t pay you much money, so if you’re one of these big swank detectives then I’m thinking you’ll not want to be bothered with the likes of us. But we’re more than a little worried about our niece Maureen O’Byrne. She sailed for New York on the Majestic out of Queenstown just under a year ago, hoping to make a better life for herself in your country. Indeed things seemed to fall into place instantly for her. She hadn’t been there more than a week or two when she wrote to us saying that she’d landed herself a good situation as under-parlormaid with a Mrs. Mainwaring and she hoped soon to be sending money home when she’d paid off her passage.
She had not given us an address to write to, so we could only wait for more news. Well, we waited and waited but heard nothing more. So now a year’s coming up and we’re concerned about her welfare. She was always a good girl and devoted to her uncle and me, as we were her closest relatives since her poor mother and father died. Something must have happened to her, or she would have written, I’m absolutely sure. Even if she couldn’t send any money she would have at least written a note at Christmastime.
As I said, we are not wealthy folks and I have no idea what your usual fee might be, but we’ve a little set aside for our funerals and we’re willing to do what’s necessary to learn about our Maureen. Anything you can do to help will be appreciated. Please reply to the above address and God love you for your efforts.
E. M. O’Byrne (Mrs.)
P.S. I have enclosed a picture of Maureen to help you with your inquiries. As you can see, she’s a pretty girl, dainty, almost fairylike. We used to tease her that she was a changeling as we’re all heavyset and dark in the family except for her.
Copyright © 2013 by Rhys Bowen