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“I don’t suppose we’ll be invited to the best funerals. Only the second-rate ones.”
“Charlotte!” Mrs. Benchley and Louise stared in horror at the younger Benchley daughter, who was reclined on a chaise lounge, her face obscured by The New York Herald. Under a banner headline—“Titanic Sinks!”—was a picture of John Jacob Astor and the words “He gave his life so that women and children might live.”
We were in Louise’s room, preparing for her visit to her fiancé’s family on Long Island. In the silence that followed, I thought how foolish we had been two days ago when we first heard the news, imagining that the Titanic had sunk with no great loss of life. The earliest bulletins had said as much, stating that everyone had proceeded in an orderly fashion to the lifeboats and were now patiently awaiting rescue. It was only when The New York Times reported the abrupt end of the ship’s distress signal that we began to feel uneasy. Then came the bewildering news that the Carpathia had only picked up seven hundred survivors. That was when we faced the reality: fifteen hundred people were dead, gone in a single night.
And the wealth and fame of those who had died! Astor, Straus, Guggenheim. People so blessed with the world’s riches—how could they be lost, anonymous forms swallowed by the Atlantic? The unsinkable ship, wrecked upon an iceberg, pulled headfirst into the icy water. And there had been no orderly evacuation, just panic, desperation, screams, and death. Over the past two days, I had found myself dazed and short of breath, lost in contemplation of children who, separated from their parents, had gotten lost in the madness and were left to face their end in the rising waters alone.
“It’s so awful,” said Louise, who was also gazing at Mr. Astor’s picture.
“You mustn’t think about it, Louise,” said her mother. “It’s not a time to distress yourself. Think of the wedding.”
“Yes, think of it,” said Charlotte. “Don’t the Tylers have a duchess coming over from England? Imagine—‘I survived Titanic and the Tyler-Benchley wedding. Two disasters in a single month.’”
Louise went pale. Sinking onto her bed, she whispered, “I think maybe Charlotte’s right.”
Mrs. Benchley, who had been asking for the third time if I had packed Miss Louise’s navy day dress, said, “Right about what, Louise?”
“Maybe we should postpone.”
Mrs. Benchley’s mouth dropped. “Postpone?”
“Just by a few weeks, or even months.”
“Decades?” offered Charlotte, turning the page. Inwardly, I sighed. Kindness had never been one of Charlotte’s more salient qualities, but her spite was growing worse as the wedding day grew near. Two years ago, the sisters’ prospects had looked very different. Charlotte had made a dramatic debut in New York society by becoming engaged to one of its most eligible bachelors. But on the night their engagement was to be announced, he was found bludgeoned to death. Charlotte had fallen under suspicion, but another was found guilty and executed. (Still another person was guilty, but that’s a story for another time.)
There had been hope that people would forget Charlotte’s connection to the celebrated murder. Alas, society was not so willing to forgive. Charlotte found herself stranded among people who remembered her as the interloper who had destroyed the Newsome family. Oh, she was still received, but she was relegated to the far distant edges of conviviality, forced to survive on conversational scraps such as old Pierpont Jackson’s discourse on the breeding of foxhounds or Melanie Derwent’s chatter about the paranormal. The iron had entered into Charlotte’s soul. The sweet dimpled smile made appearances when necessary. But I had the feeling that behind the smile, the teeth had grown sharper.
Louise gestured helplessly at the headlines. “I don’t see how we can have an enormous wedding right after such a tragedy.”
Mrs. Benchley’s face was blank with incomprehension. “But dearest, just the other day, Mrs. Borcherling said how much she was looking forward to it.”
Wringing her hands, Louise said, “Well, maybe we could, just this once, disappoint Mrs. Borcherling?”
“We certainly could not,” said her mother with unusual vigor. “She’s asked me to serve on a committee for a memorial to the men of the Titanic.”
Frustration agitated Louise’s body; her lip began to tremble and tears welled in her eyes. Shutting the trunk, I said perhaps Miss Louise should lie down; we would be leaving early and it was important she be rested. Mrs. Benchley hastily left the room, taking Charlotte with her.
Hand to her chest and gulping air, Louise said, “It’s all going to go wrong, I know it. Completely, horribly wrong—”
“It will be fine, Miss Louise,” I said soothingly.
“No, it won’t. I can’t do it. I can’t.”
A society wedding is a daunting prospect for even the most beautiful young woman. Louise Benchley was not a beauty, being somewhat deficient in chin and protuberant of eye. When I first met her, she had been a girl uncommonly affected by gravity; everything inclined downward. Her shoulders slumped, her arms dangled, her hair hung lank. I sometimes wondered if the midwife hadn’t pulled too hard on the infant Louise and her newborn form, pliable as taffy, had been stretched several inches beyond a desirable length.
We had worked hard, Louise and I, to bring out her charms. Careful coiling had given her hair height and volume, improved posture an air of vitality. Stylishly adorned hats had lent their support, and she could now utter as many as three sentences in succession in the company of mere acquaintances. But nothing had improved her looks more than the glow that came the day she became engaged to William Tyler.
But the Titanic was only the latest obstacle to be placed in the way of Louise’s happiness. William had returned from law school to propose to Louise in the summer of 1911, during a heat wave that drove people to sleep in Central Park, caused rail accidents due to melted tracks, and killed nearly four hundred people. When William told his mother of the engagement, Mrs. Tyler asked him if his wits had been turned by the heat. Had her son forgotten that she no longer spoke to the Benchleys, after Charlotte’s snatching of his sister’s fiancé? William’s sisters Beatrice and Emily simply blocked out the information. Oh, was William getting married? To whom? Louise Benchley? No, not possible, you must be mistaken.
Several inspections over tea had persuaded Mrs. Tyler that Louise was pleasant and bullyable, and these were qualities Mrs. Tyler looked for in her relations. And there was the fact that the Tyler fortune was depleted, the Benchley fortune considerable, and Mrs. Tyler still had two unmarried daughters. So, Mrs. Tyler sighed and resigned herself to a wealthy daughter-in-law.
The couple had wanted a quiet wedding, preferably at the Benchley home. But here Mrs. Tyler would not give way. Her only son’s wedding must be an occasion; there would be no comparison made to the embarrassment of the wedding of the Roosevelt boy to his cousin Eleanor several years back. (Town Topics criticized that affair for the “pathetic economy of the food,” which was “supplied by an Italian caterer not of the first class.” The flowers were arranged by a “Madison Avenue florist of no particular fame; and the narrow staircase of the house permitted only one person to ascend or descend at a time.”) With complicit dithering from Mrs. Benchley, William and Louise had been overruled.
Months of searching, evaluating, arguing, and—in Louise’s case, weeping—had followed. Everything grand enough for the mothers was terrifying to the bride. Finally, William’s uncle, the celebrated Charles Tyler, had stepped in. The wedding would be held in a home, but at his home, the beautiful estate of Pleasant Meadows on Long Island. The space could match Mrs. Tyler’s most fevered dreams of splendor, yet it was a place beloved by William, which in turn made it acceptable to Louise.
Of course, the involvement of Charles Tyler drove the newspapers into further frenzy and they pounced on the preparations. Everything about Louise—the size of her foot, the span of her waist, the enormity of her father’s bank account—was detailed. To date, there had been twenty-seven articles on the wedding dress alone: was it to be Worth or Paquin? The veil cathedral length or floral crown? The state of her bridal underwear was speculated upon from stockings to corset. The identities of the bridesmaids, the shade of white of the shoes, the provenance of the caviar—everything made its way into papers. And all with a degree of malicious anticipation; one could expect nothing but fusty good taste from the Tylers, but of the newly rich Benchley clan, expenditures of splendid vulgarity might be hoped for.
None of this helped Louise’s already fragile nerves. And she was not alone in her distress. I took some pride in this match; for all intents and purposes, I had made it. As a ladies’ maid, it was a central part of my calling to see my employers securely established in society. As the plain, older sister of a woman suspected of murder, Louise’s marital prospects had been grim. Her money would have ensured a suitor eventually, but not the sort of man capable of caring for a shy, desperately insecure young woman.
Handsome, well-bred, and poor, William Tyler had also been overlooked on the marriage market. Everyone knew he would marry in the end, but no one was fighting for the privilege. Here, I saw an opportunity. She was rich, he was socially connected. He was kind, she needed kindness. I was the one who suggested William call on Louise, but it hadn’t been easy to put them together. Louise had a terror of being seen in public or speaking out loud, both of which are useful in courtship. William had the predictable affinity of the good-looking for the good-looking. And he was a romantic; his early calls on Louise had had the stale whiff of duty to them.
But that had changed as they discovered over walks in the park and pastries at the Hotel Astor that they had much in common, chiefly, being the deferential members of overbearing families. Furthermore, they were both enamored of an elderly basset hound named Wallace, who was walked frequently and unwillingly in the park by his owner, a Mrs. Abernathy.
So, I could now tell Louise with sincerity, “Everything will seem brighter once you and Mr. William are married.”
She whispered, “I don’t think so. I want to think so. But I can’t quite believe it.”
The only answer I had to this vague foreboding was: “Tea.”
Going to the kitchen, I winced at a thump and thud from upstairs; the housemaid Bernadette was wrestling with the vacuum cleaner and presumably ruining the Benchleys’ molding in the process. In the kitchen, Mrs. Mueller, the cook, was vigorously kneading a ball of dough; she was a mediocre cook but had a real enthusiasm for pounding things. Elsie, a hired girl, newly arrived from Idaho, sat, elbows on the table, reading the newspaper. After the last girl had quit—a Greek—Mrs. Benchley decided the fault lay not with her own communication skills, but in the candidates’ lack of English, and instructed the agency to send her nothing but “good, plain American girls.” Hence, Elsie. Tall and dark haired, she looked as if the plains winds had blown every bit of fat from her body, leaving her spindly and sharp jawed. But she had energy and willingness and so far, Mrs. Benchley’s experiment in domestic nationalism seemed a success.
Like the rest of New York—indeed, the rest of the world—the Benchley staff was obsessed with the Titanic. Everyone had her particular part of the story. Bernadette was suspicious about the lack of lifeboats, the cook distressed over the fate of Baby Trevor, while Elsie anxiously awaited word of tennis champion Karl Behr.
Now she read, “‘International Tragedy Rouses Sympathy of the French People. Kaiser William Sends Message of Condolence. Sir Ernest Shackleton Says, Abnormal Year for Icebergs.’” What was normal for icebergs, I wondered.
Elsie turned the page. “Oh, this is sad. ‘The White Star office was be—besieged”—she was an unsteady reader and she gave the word a hard g—“by weeping women, several of whom had sons on board. Among these was Mrs. William Dulles, who left the office in a state of collapse, supported by her friends.”
Now there was another thud from upstairs, followed by a curse.
Looking up, Elsie said, “She hates that thing. Says it doesn’t work.”
“You take the rugs outside, you beat the rugs outside,” opined Mrs. Mueller, giving the dough a good whack.
I said, “Progress, Mrs. Mueller. Would you make some tea for Miss Louise?”
Bernadette stomped into the kitchen and threw herself into a chair. She, Mrs. Mueller, and I were survivors in a manner of speaking, having lasted two years in the Benchleys’ employ, a feat that had eluded every other domestic in the city and possibly the state. Not that the Benchleys were difficult to please; they were just impossible in every other way. There was also Mrs. Benchley’s personal maid, an elderly woman who went by the name “Matchless Maude.” But she kept to her room, preferring gin to company.
Bernadette was a stout young woman with red hair and small, watchful eyes. She had more wits than her job made use of, and she often exercised them at others’ expense. Elsie, new to the city, was an easy target. When the country girl expressed sympathy for Madeleine Astor, Bernadette rolled her eyes. “Poor Madeleine Astor! She saved her maid and let her rich husband drown.”
Elsie argued, “Well, she didn’t have a choice, it’s women and children first.”
“The code of the sea,” intoned Mrs. Mueller, flinging the dough onto the counter.
“If they’d had enough lifeboats, you wouldn’t need a code,” said Bernadette.
Wanting to diffuse the argument, I took up the newspaper. There was a fetching picture of a young woman hanging from a trapeze and I read: “‘The Ladies of Barnum and Bailey to March for Suffrage!’”
But Bernadette could not be put off needling so easily. She asked Elsie, “Are you all signed up? Going to march for your right to vote?”
Elsie shrugged. “We’ve had the vote in Idaho since 1896. Maybe they just don’t trust you New York gals. I guess you’ll be out there.”
“Oh, sure,” lied Bernadette.
I smiled. “Wearing your thirty-nine-cent hat?” The suffrage marchers, wanting to project unity, were urging everyone to wear special thirty-nine-cent hats, and the papers were gleefully anticipating the spectacle of well-heeled women sporting a cheap parade bonnet with their white suits and tricolored sashes.
Then Elsie asked, “Who would you vote for, if you could?”
“None of them,” snorted Bernadette. A neat way, I thought, not to admit she didn’t know any of the candidates. True—there were a lot of them. In February, Teddy Roosevelt started what he called “the biggest fight the Republican Party has been in since the Civil War,” and declared he was running against his former friend and protégé, President Taft, whom he now deemed a fathead with the brains of a guinea pig. Wilson promised a New Freedom, Roosevelt a New Nationalism. Someone named Champ Clark was keen to annex Canada. Everyone promised to end corruption and curb the abuses of big business. Republicans favored something called a protective tariff, while Democrats were in favor of free trade. I myself had no opinion on the matter.
“Are you going to march, Miss Prescott?” Elsie asked me.
The question surprised me. I was so preoccupied with the wedding, I had never even considered going. And I didn’t think of myself as a … marcher.
“It’s barely a week after Miss Louise’s wedding. I’ll still be asleep.”
As Mrs. Mueller poured the water into the teapot and wrapped it in a cloth, I arranged the tray. Bernadette said, “I heard her crying again. I never saw a girl cry so much before her own wedding.”
Elsie leaned in. “He’s nice-looking, that William Tyler. Oh, say, there was something in the papers—”
She turned the pages, then pushed it to the center of the table so we could all see.
“I DEFY THEM!” DEPUTY COMMISSIONER CHARLES TYLER STANDS AGAINST THE BLACK HAND
“That’s Mr. William’s uncle, ain’t it?” asked Elsie. “Where you’re going tomorrow.”
Mrs. Mueller said, “He saved that little boy that they kidnapped.” Mrs. Mueller’s children were grown, but she was not yet the grandmother she longed to be. Anything to do with children caught her attention.
“Now, he’d get my vote,” said Bernadette, pointing to the picture of Tyler. “He’s not all talk. He gives the dagoes what they deserve.”
I winced. Dago was not a word I cared for—and I heard it a lot. A series of sensational (or sensationalized) incidents had many in the city feeling under siege from foreign criminals. Our last commissioner, Theodore Bingham, had made the startling claim that 85 percent of the criminals in the city were exotic. Russian Hebrews, he said, had cornered the market in crimes against property, such as burglars, firebugs, and pickpockets. Chinatown was a “plague spot that ought not to be allowed to exist.” But the “Italian malefactor” was by far the greatest threat, and the most notorious of these was a group known as the “Black Hand.” Their crimes were legion. Homes and shops were dynamited by blackmailers. Children kidnapped and held for ransom. Italian families extorted of their earnings. The body parts of those who ran afoul of the gang were strewn in city streets.
In response, Commissioner Bingham and Charles Tyler had created a special “Italian Squad,” headed by Lt. Joseph Petrosino and staffed by other men of Italian extraction, who could go undetected through the Italian neighborhoods of the East Side and Upper Broadway. A string of dramatic arrests brought great acclaim to the squad—and of course, the men responsible for its creation. If there were some who felt Charles Tyler’s war against gangs was a little showy, his cultivation of his own myth a little obvious, it could not be denied that he invested his work with all the considerable energy and wits at his disposal.
But it was the Forti case that had made Charles Tyler a national hero, winning him the hearts of American mothers so definitively that it was said that if women were given the vote, Charles Tyler could stroll right into the White House. The kidnapping of six-year-old Emilio Forti, who disappeared from his own street, had commanded Mr. Tyler’s attentions because, as he told the papers, “I have sons of my own and the thought of their mother’s heartbreak should they be taken from us is unimaginable.”
The Fortis were a well-to-do family. Emilio’s father was a lawyer. Emilio’s mother had first become alarmed when he failed to come home from school that afternoon. When she checked, she was told her son never arrived. That evening, the family had received a letter, demanding payment of $15,000 for the child’s return. The kidnappers warned that if the matter came to the attention of the police, “you will receive the body of your son by parcel post. In pieces.”
Some people observed that there was little reason for Charles Tyler to accompany “his” Sicilians on the Italian Squad, but accompany them he did. When they got a tip as to the whereabouts of the suspected kidnappers, Tyler, in disguise, tailed them from a saloon on Flatbush Avenue to a grocery on Eleventh Street. “I heard a child crying,” Tyler later told reporters. “I banged on the door and demanded entrance. No one answered and so we broke into the room. There I saw a boy, who trembled and said, ‘Please don’t kill me, mister, I’m Emilio.’ I picked the little fellow up and told him I was a policeman and that I was going to take him home to his people.”
The Italian Squad managed to arrest two of the kidnappers; the police implied there were others, but these two were dim enough to get caught. One of them was Dante Moretti, son of the notorious Sirrino Moretti. Speaking with the newspapers, the senior Mr. Moretti, who described himself as a humble merchant, had suggested that as the charges were false the trial would not be in Charles Tyler’s best interest. His reputation, worried Mr. Moretti, could “suffer.” Tyler responded to these threats with characteristic bravado, and a war of words had ensued, much to the delight of the press. I just hoped that the battle would not escalate. At least, not before the wedding.
“Maybe that’s why she’s nervous,” said Bernadette, tossing her head toward Louise’s room. “You’re walking down the aisle, all of a sudden, some guinea jumps out and tries to cut your throat.”
I had seen too much of Louise’s nerves to find this funny. “Miss Louise’s wedding day will be perfect. Even if I have to cut someone’s throat myself.”
Bernadette narrowed her eyes. “And what happens to you after the wedding? What if her mother-in-law decides you’re not good enough for the new Mrs. Tyler? Wants someone who’s worked for royalty and speaks French?”
The question had occurred to me, but I wasn’t going to admit it to Bernadette, who added, “It’s not like you ever got along so well with Miss Charlotte.”
I picked up the tray. “I’m sure when Miss Louise decides, I’ll be the first to know.”
“Future’s uncertain, that’s all I’m saying,” said Bernadette. She nodded to the headline, ONE THOUSAND EIGHT HUNDRED SOULS LOST! “Tomorrow’s promised to no man—or woman either.”
Copyright © 2019 by Mariah Fredericks