New York, July 1901
“You want me to do what?” I demanded so loudly that a delicate young female walking ahead of us glanced back in horror and had to reach for her smelling salts. I burst out laughing. “For the love of Mike, Daniel—can you picture me as a companion?” Then I looked up at Captain Daniel Sullivan’s face. He wasn’t smiling.
He gave me an embarrassed half-smile, half-shrug. “I was only thinking of you, Molly. You do need a job, and you haven’t exactly been successful in your search so far.”
“So I haven’t come up with the perfect job yet.” I picked up my skirts to avoid the wet patches around a grand-looking fountain. It had a fine bronze statue of the Angel of the Waters on top, but at this moment the scene was anything but grand. A host of little boys, some of them naked as the day they were born, were scrambling in and out, standing under the curtain of spray before being evicted again, squealing and yelling as they avoided the nightstick wielded by an overzealous policeman. It was Sunday afternoon and we were doing what most New Yorkers did on hot summer Sundays—we were strolling through Central Park. For once Daniel’s day off had actually fallen on a Sunday, and there had been no incidents to drag him away with an apologetic peck on the cheek.
It seemed as if pecks on the cheek were all I was getting these days from Captain Daniel Sullivan. Yes, I know that pecks on the cheek, properly chaperoned, are all that decent young ladies should expect before marriage, but propriety rather went out of the window when I was with Daniel. And I had hoped our romance might have blossomed into something more substantial by now, but as New York’s youngest police captain, Daniel threw himself wholeheartedly into his job. I, on the other hand, had no job to keep me occupied.
It wasn’t as if I hadn’t tried. After my somewhat dramatic arrival in New York, I had looked for something suitable. The saints in heaven will attest that I really put my heart into it. I wouldn’t have minded a governess position, in fact I’d have been good at it. But it didn’t take me long to discover that an Irish girl, fresh off the boat, and with no references—or at least no references that could be verified (I had made some very convincing forgeries), would not be hired to teach the children of a good family. Nursemaid maybe, but I didn’t think I’d last a week as a servant.
After that, I tried my hand at any job I could find, short of gutting fish at the Fulton Street fish market. I did draw the line at standing up to my elbows in fish entrails.
“You have to admit that there have been some rather spectacular disasters.” Daniel voiced my thoughts for me, making me wonder whether he could actually read my mind.
“I wouldn’t say disasters.”
A breeze blew off the boating lake beyond the fountain, sending a fine curtain of spray in our direction. The cool tingles on my hot skin felt wonderful and I was tempted to stand there for a while until Daniel pulled me clear. “Molly—you’ll get soaked to the skin.”
“But it feels divine.”
“It might feel divine,” he said, looking down at me with those alarming blue eyes, “but that’s a very fine muslin you’re wearing, my dear. We wouldn’t want other men ogling you, would we?” He led me firmly away from the fountain terrace, along the edge of the boating lake. I paused to look longingly at those rowboats. A couple came gliding by, the girl’s face hidden by a deliciously decadent parasol—all frills and lace and froufrou—as she trailed a hand languidly through the water. Her beau, pulling manfully at the oars in rolled-up shirtsleeves, didn’t look as if he were enjoying himself quite as much. Undignified rivulets of sweat streaked the beet-red face beneath his boater.
“You wouldn’t say disasters?” Daniel repeated, chuckling as he led me away. “The shirtwaist factory?”
“So I got a needle through my thumb. It could have happened to anyone.” I tossed my head, almost losing my straw boater into the water.
“And who sewed all those sleeves on inside out?” Those alarming blue eyes were twinkling.
“That wasn’t why I was fired and you know it. It was because I stood up to that brute of a foreman and wasn’t about to take any of his nonsense. All those unfair rules—docking their workers’ pay every time they so much as sneezed. I knew right away that I’d never be able to hold my tongue for long.”
“Then there was the café,” Daniel reminded me.
I gave him a sheepish grin. “Yes, I suppose that counted as a spectacular disaster.”
We had reached the dappled shade of spreading chestnut trees as the path left the lakeside. The effect was instant, like stepping into a pool of cool water. “Ah, that’s better,” Daniel said. “Look, there’s a bench under that tree. Let’s sit awhile.”
I noticed that Daniel seemed to be feeling the heat more than I. His face was as red as the young man’s in the rowboat and his wild black curls were plastered to his forehead under his boater. Of course, gentlemen are at a disadvantage on days like this, having to wear jackets whilst we women can keep cool in muslins. But he was a born New Yorker. I’d have thought he grew up used to this heat. I, on the other hand, had come from the wild west coast of Ireland, where a couple of sunny days in a row counted as a heat wave, and we had the chilly Atlantic at our feet whenever we needed to cool off.
Daniel took out his handkerchief and mopped at his brow. “That’s better,” he said. “I swear, every summer is hotter than the last. It’s those new skyscrapers. They block the cooling breezes from the East River and the Hudson.”
“It’s certainly hot enough.” I fanned myself with the penny fan I had bought from a street vendor last week. It was a pretty little thing from China, made of paper and decorated with a picture of a pagoda and wild mountain scenery. “Here, you look as if you could use this more than me.” I turned and fanned Daniel too. He grabbed at my wrist, laughing. “Stop it. You’ll be offering me your smelling salts next.”
“I’ve never carried smelling salts in my life and never intend to,” I said. “Fainting is for ninnies.”
“That’s what I like about you, Molly Murphy—” For a long minute Daniel gazed at me in a way that turned my insides to water, his fingers still firmly around my wrist—“Your spirit. That and your trim little waist, of course, and those big green eyes and that adorable little nose.” He touched it playfully. Then the smile faded but the look of longing remained. “Oh, Molly. I just wish …” He let the rest of the sentence hang in the humid air, making me wonder what exactly he was wishing. He was young and healthy, with great career prospects—and a future that should have included a wife too. But I wasn’t going to press him on this one. Who knew how men’s minds worked? He could be waiting for a pay raise or saving enough to buy a house before he popped the question—if he did indeed intend to pop it. For once in my life I kept silent.
“I’m pretty content myself,” I said gaily. “I have a fine big room of my own and a handsome fellow who comes to call from time to time, and I’m living in a big city, just like I always dreamed I would.”
Daniel let his gaze fall and he sat there for a moment silent, his eyes focused on his hands in his lap.
“There’s no rush for anything, Daniel,” I said. “If I could just find a way to keep myself a respectable job where I wasn’t abused or overworked …”
“Did I not mention the companion’s position?”
I patted his hand. “Daniel—can you see me as a companion to an old lady? Companions are pathetic, downtrodden creatures who cringe when spoken to and spend their days holding knitting wool and combing cats. I tried my hand at being a servant, remember. I wasn’t born to be humble. And you know yourself that I can never learn when to hold my tongue.”
“But a companion is not a servant, Molly. You’d be expected to read to Miss Van Woekem and take her for strolls around the park—that kind of thing. What could be easier?”
“She’d be crotchety and finickety. Old spinsters always are. I’d lose my patience with her and that would be that.” I gave a gay little laugh, but still Daniel didn’t smile.
“Molly, I’m sure I don’t need to remind you that you do need to find some kind of job soon. I know the alderman gave you a small gift by way of apology for what happened at his house—”
“It was a bribe, Daniel, as you very well know.”
“But it won’t last forever,” Daniel went on, ignoring my statement. It was funny the way the New York policemen seemed to become suddenly deaf at the mention of the word ‘bribe.’ “And you do have rent to pay, even though it’s a modest amount.”
“The O’Hallarans are being very kind,” I agreed. “I’m sure they could rent out their attic for much more if they chose to.” It was Daniel himself who had found me the pleasant top-floor flat owned by a fellow policeman. “And don’t forget Seamus shares the rent, and pays for most of the food, too.”
“I should think so, considering that you cook it and look after his children for him.”
“I’m glad to do it,” I said. “They’re no trouble, and how would he manage without me, poor man, with his wife back home in Ireland just waiting to die?”
I had brought Seamus’s young son and daughter to New York at their mother’s request when she found that she had consumption and wasn’t allowed to travel. And in case you think I’m some kind of saint, let me assure you that the arrangement suited my own purposes very well.
“You’ve a good heart, Molly,” Daniel said, “but this arrangement can’t go on forever. I’m not entirely comfortable with you living up there with a man whose wife is back in Ireland.”
I laughed. “Not comfortable, Daniel? Seamus O’Connor is a perfectly harmless individual—you’ve seen him yourself. Hardly the greatest catch in New York. What’s more, we have a kitchen and hallway between us to keep things proper, and Mrs. O’Hallaran downstairs too, keeping an eye on things.”
“That’s not the point,” Daniel said. “People will talk. Do you want them saying you’re a kept woman?”
“Then may I suggest you listen to me and find a suitable job for yourself that will not end in disaster.”
His reminders of my dismal failures in the world of commerce were beginning to rile me. I didn’t like to fail at anything. “If you really want to know, I’m still planning to follow my original idea and set myself up as a private investigator.” I threw this out more to annoy him than anything.
Daniel rolled his eyes and gave a despairing chuckle. “Molly, women do not become investigators. I thought we’d been through all this before.”
“I don’t see why not. I thought I was pretty good at it.”
“Apart from almost getting yourself killed.”
“Right. Apart from that. But I told you. I don’t plan to deal with criminal cases. Nothing dangerous. I still keep thinking about all those people when I was leaving Liverpool, Daniel. They were desperate for knowledge of their loved ones who had come to America. I’d be doing good work if I united families again, wouldn’t I?”
“Did it ever occur to you that the loved ones might not want to be found?” he asked. “And anyway, how would you set about this—this detective business? You’d need an office to start with, and you’d have to advertise …”
“I know that too!”
“And if you discovered that the loved one you were seeking had gone to California, would you take the train to find him? Families of immigrants won’t have money to pay.”
“So I’d need some capital to get started.” I paused to watch an elegant open carriage pass on the road beyond the trees. Lovely women in wide white hats and young men in blazers sat chatting and laughing as if they hadn’t a care in the world—which they probably hadn’t. “And I’d just have to take some cases that paid well.”
Daniel turned to me and took my hands in his. “Molly, please put this foolish idea to rest. You don’t need to set yourself up as anything. You need a pleasant, dignified job that pays the rent, for the time being, that’s all.”
“Maybe I won’t be content with a pleasant little job. Maybe I want to make something of myself.”
He laughed again, uneasily this time. “It’s not as if you’re a man and need to be thinking of a future career. Only something to bide your time until some fellow snaps you up.”
His eyes were teasing again, all seriousness apparently forgotten.
“Snaps me up? But surely you know I’m a hopeless case? Already turned twenty-three and therefore officially on the shelf.”
“You? You’ll never find yourself on the shelf, Molly. You’ll be just as fascinating at fifty.”
“Hardly a comforting thought,” I said. “Still a companion at fifty? Shall we go on walking?” I got to my feet. This conversation was definitely not leading where I wanted it to. Daniel had had several chances to state his intentions and failed miserably at all of them. It wasn’t as if he were either hesitant or shy. Then he said something that made me realize how his brain might be working.
“I wish you’d give the companion’s position a try, Molly. Miss Van Woekem is well respected in New York society. My parents really look up to her. Being with her would give you an introduction into society here.”
Then it dawned on me. That was why he was hesitating—he didn’t want to marry an Irish peasant girl fresh from the old sod. I’d left Ireland with its snobbery and class prejudice and crossed the Atlantic to find that same snobbery alive and flourishing in the New World. And he with parents who came over with nothing in the great famine! Well, if that was how Daniel Sullivan thought—I opened my mouth to tell him what he could do with his companion’s job, and with Miss Van What’s-it too. I stopped myself at the last second. He presumably thought he was doing this for my own good. He wanted me to fit in and become acceptable and accepted in society here. What’s more, it certainly beat out fish gutting. What did I have to lose? “All right, if you think I should take it, I’m prepared to give it a try.”
He stopped and put his hands on my shoulders. “That’s my girl,” he said, kissing me on the forehead.
“Should we try the Ramble today?” I motioned to the inviting woodland path that disappeared into the undergrowth to my left. The area of Central Park known as the Ramble was made up of a series of winding, intersecting paths through a thickly wooded copse. Only a few steps into the woods and it was hard to believe that you were in the middle of a big city. It was also one of the few places where it was possible to steal a kiss undisturbed.
But Daniel shook his head. “It’s too hot for walking today. Why don’t we head for that ice cream parlor?”
“Ice cream? That would be wonderful!” On a hot day like this, ice cream won out over kisses with me too. I had only just tasted my first ice cream and was still amazed at a place where such luxuries were available every day.
Daniel smiled at my excitement. “Don’t ever change, will you?”
“I might well turn into a severe and snooty spinster when Miss Van Woekem starts to influence me,” I retorted.
He laughed and slipped his arm around my waist. In spite of the heat and the fact that this was surely not proper behavior for a park on a Sunday, I wasn’t about to stop him. We joined the stream of Sunday strollers on the wide East Drive. Half of New York had to be here. The upper crust passed by in their open carriages, oblivious to the stream of pedestrians beside them. On the sandy footpath it was ordinary people like ourselves, severe Italian mothers dressed all in black with a fleet of noisy bambinos, Jewish families with bearded patriarchs and solemn little boys with skullcaps on their heads, proud fathers pushing tall perambulators—every language under the sun being spoken around us. As we neared the gate the noise level rose—music from a carrousel competed with an Italian hurdy-gurdy man and the shouts of the ice cream seller. I knew that Daniel wouldn’t buy ice cream in the park. You never knew what it was made from, he said, and typhoid fever was always a worry in the hot weather.
Suddenly a dapper little man in a dark brown suit and derby hat stepped out in front of us.
“Hold it right there!” he shouted.
“It’s all right. He’s only taking our photo,” Daniel whispered as I started in alarm. “He’s one of the park photographers.”
I saw then that the man was pointing a little black box at us and we heard a click.
“There you are, sir. Lovely souvenir of the day,” he said, nodding seriously. He had a strange accent that seemed to be a mixture of London Cockney and Bowery New York. He came up to Daniel. “Here’s my card if you care to stop by the studio and purchase the photo for your lady friend.”
As he handed Daniel his card he moved closer and I thought I saw his hand go to Daniel’s pocket. It was over in a fraction of a second, so that I didn’t know whether to believe my eyes. For a moment I was too startled to act, then, as I grabbed Daniel’s arm to warn him, I saw the man’s hand move away from Daniel again, and it was empty. I didn’t want to make a scene, so I kept quiet until we had walked past the photographer.
“I think that man tried to pick your pocket,” I whispered.
“Then he was out of luck,” Daniel said, smiling. “I only keep my handkerchief in that pocket.”
He slipped his hand into the pocket and I noticed the change in his expression. “Yes, the fellow was unlucky all right,” he said, taking my arm. “Come on, let’s get that ice cream.”
Copyright © 2002 by Rhys Bowen.