MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK
ROSE GALLAGHER OF 55 MOTT STREET—JUST ANOTHER DAY—CLARA’S ADVICE—THE FIRST CLUE
As I tell you this story, I’ll thank you to remember that I was young and in love. That’s not an excuse, but if you’re looking to understand what happened on that day in January 1886—what really happened, mind you, not the version you read in Harper’s Weekly or The New-York Tribune—then you ought to have the whole picture. So yes, I was nineteen years old, and yes, I had a blinding crush on my employer, one Mr. Thomas Wiltshire of 726 Fifth Avenue, and those facts together led me to make certain choices in those early hours, choices that might charitably be called naive. Some of the actions I took I’m not particularly proud of. But I wouldn’t take a one of them back, either—which is saying a lot, considering how near they came to getting me killed.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. I really ought to start at the beginning, which means I should say a little about where I’m from. If you’re from around here, then you know that in New York, where you come from is everything. It defines your place in the world—your past, present, even your future if you let it. Why, just your name and address tell a stranger pretty much everything he cares to know about you. Not just where you live, but how: what parish you belong to, how much money you’ve got, where your people came from before they were Americans. He can even make a fair guess as to what you do for a living. Your name and address label you a certain type of New Yorker, a creature with particular habits and distinctive plumage, not unlike a species of bird. Black-capped chickadee. Northern mockingbird. Italian fruit vendor. Chinese laundryman. So when I say that my name is Rose Gallagher of 55 Mott Street, well, that’s a whole story right there, and a common one at that. The story of an Irish girl from Five Points.
What do those words conjure in your head? A photograph of some fair-haired, reedy thing leaning out of a tenement window to hang washing on the line while drunks and ragpickers loiter in the alley below? Well, you wouldn’t be far from the mark. But there’s more to me than that slip of a girl, just as there’s more to Five Points than the vice and violence you read about in the papers. Oh, it’s a wretched enough corner of the world, to be sure, but it’s home. And it’s where I learned that if you don’t take care of you and yours, there’s nobody else will do it for you.
Which brings me back to the day Mr. Thomas Wiltshire disappeared, and everything I knew in the world went spinning down the drain.
Funny, isn’t it, how the days that change your life forever start out like any other? I don’t remember much about that morning, except that it was a Sunday and my day off, so I took my mother to church. I’d have spent the afternoon scrubbing Mam’s floors and putting dinner on the stove, though I’ve no recollection of it. My first clear memory of the day is hanging off a strap on the Sixth Avenue el, trying to hold my copy of Harper’s Weekly steady while the train rattled and swayed beneath me. The el, if you haven’t had the pleasure, has all the lumbering grace of a three-legged bull, which makes reading the fine print of Harper’s a bit of a trick, especially when it’s coming on to dark outside. Luckily, I wasn’t trying to read the print; I was too busy poring over the illustration on the cover.
It featured Mother Earth seated on her throne at the heart of the world, attended by her children as she greeted the New Year. She looked like a Roman goddess, serene and beautiful, smiling benevolently down at the cherubic 1886. I’d never seen anything so fantastical, so thoroughly exotic. Children of the world clustered around her, African and Indian and Celestial. Skins of lions and tigers beneath her sandaled feet. The volcano looming in the background, the waterfall plunging majestically over a cliff. What wondrous places had the artist traveled that he could capture images like these in such sumptuous detail? I felt a familiar pang of longing, and for a moment I imagined myself standing in a steaming jungle, brushing up against leaves the size of an elephant’s ear while I listened to birds shriek and insects sing, the roar of a waterfall in the distance.
Maybe it was longer than a moment, come to think of it, because the next thing I remember it was full dark and I was making my way down the steps of the Fifty-Eighth Street Station in the rain. I must have made a pitiful sight hurrying along the sidewalk with my bonnet pulled low and my precious paper tucked under my arm, because the nighthawks seized on me the moment I turned onto Fifth Avenue, the clip-clop of hooves and calls of “Cab, miss?” trailing me down the block.
I burst through the servant’s door at Number 726 with my usual grace, stumbling over the umbrella someone had left open to dry in the entryway. I couldn’t wait to show Clara the illustration on the cover of Harper’s, sure she would appreciate it as much as I did. But as I made my way down the hall, I heard a frightful clamor of pots and pans coming from the kitchen, and I drew up short.
Warily, I peered around the doorframe. “Clara?”
My greeting was met with a crash of the oven door and a string of language as doesn’t bear repeating, the gist of which was this: Clara was having a bad day.
“People starving in this city—starving—but that’s no bother, just fine, I’ll toss away three hours’ worth of cooking!”
I braved a single step into the kitchen. “What’s happened?”
She whirled on me, hand on hip, eyes flared with righteous anger. “Why? I’ll tell you why. Because His Lordship Sir High-and-Mighty can’t be bothered to come home for his dinner! Again.”
“Oh.” I tried to think of a reasonable excuse. “Well, I suppose he’s very busy with work.”
“I suppose he is. Too busy to send word, even. So important.”
“Careful,” I said, throwing a worried glance at the foot of the servants’ staircase. Mrs. Sellers had a way of appearing on those stairs at the most inopportune moments. “She might hear you.” I didn’t need to say who she was.
“Don’t care if she does,” Clara said, but she lowered her voice all the same. She needed her position as much as I, and the housekeeper was always looking for an excuse to get after the both of us, since the only stock of people she cared for less than the Irish were the coloreds. Mrs. Sellers might not have the authority to dismiss us outright, but she could make things difficult with Mr. Wiltshire, and that was cause enough to fear her.
“Did you ask her if we might…” I stopped myself short of asking a silly question. Mrs. Sellers never let us keep leftovers. To her way of thinking, that would only encourage Clara to prepare too much food in the hopes of keeping some for herself. It wouldn’t occur to her that Clara was too decent, not to mention too proud, to do any such thing.
“So I can listen to her lecture me about how it’s practically the same as stealing? No, thank you, ma’am.”
“I’m sorry, Clara. It’s an awful shame.” My gaze slid longingly to the roast beef and potatoes cooling on the stovetop. I couldn’t recall the last time I’d had Sunday roast. Easter, probably, some years past.
“Well.” Clara surveyed the kitchen, her temper cooling along with her cooking. “Some of it’ll keep, and there’s always soup to be made. But the nerve of the man, not sending so much as a hint of warning. Uncivilized, is what it is. You’d think a proper Englishman would know better.”
“I’m sure he had a good reason.”
She gave me a wry look. “You’re sure of no such thing, except that Thomas Wiltshire can do no wrong.”
I felt my skin warming, so I changed the subject. “Look, I’ve got something to show you.” Drawing her over by the lamp, I smoothed out my copy of Harper’s Weekly. “What do you think of that?”
Clara squinted. “I hardly know. What is it?”
“Why, it’s only the most incredible drawing I’ve ever seen!”
“Is it now?” She raised her eyebrows. “More incredible than the hot springs of Iceland?”
“Well, I suppose—”
“More incredible than the jaguar fishing in the Amazon? Or the squad of saluting elephants in India?” She made a trunk of her arm, raising it high.
“You’re making fun of me.”
Looking closer, Clara grunted. “All I see is a white lady with other people’s babies in her lap.”
“Well, I think it’s grand,” I said, snatching the paper off the table.
“Oh, don’t be like that,” she laughed. “I’m only teasing. I think it’s fine how you get all lathered up over your magazines.”
“I’m not lathered up. I’m trying to better myself, is all.”
“Better yourself, or escape to the jungle for a spell?”
Escape. It’s a strong word, when you think about it. A strong word, and exactly the right one. “And where’s the harm in that?” I gestured vaguely at the kitchen. “Is it wrong to want to see more of the world than … this?”
“I know, honey.”
That was the thing about Clara. She did know. She understood me better than anybody, probably because we had so much in common. Clara came from the Tenderloin, which is just about the only part of New York that can give Five Points a run for its money for sheer infamy. She’d seen her share of wickedness and faced more than her share of bigots. Like me, Clara had an ailing mother to take care of. And like me, she dreamed of bigger things—in her case, marrying her sweetheart, Joseph, and saving enough money to buy a little dairy farm in Westchester.
But if Clara’s dream seemed just out of reach, mine was downright unattainable. I wanted more than anything to be a Travel and Adventure writer, or maybe an illustrator. But if being a woman wasn’t barrier enough, I was also Irish and poor as a church mouse. The four-story town house at 726 Fifth Avenue was about as close to travel and adventure as I was likely to get in this life.
“I just don’t want to see you set yourself up for disappointment,” Clara said. “You got to be realistic. Dreams is one thing. Goals is another.”
“I know.” I rolled up my Harper’s and stuffed it into the pocket of my overcoat. Forcing a smile, I added, “And right now, my goal is to get some supper in my belly.”
“Now that I can help you with.” Clara went over to the stove and carved off a slice of the roast, crusty and fragrant, steam rising from it like a chorus of angels. Somehow she’d managed to keep it pink in the center, in spite of it having languished in the oven since late afternoon.
My mouth watered as I watched her load up the plate with golden potatoes and thick, greasy gravy. “What about Mrs. Sellers?”
“I don’t see her anywhere, do you?” Clara’s smile had just a hint of spite in it. “Now skedaddle. She catches you, we’ll both wind up working in the box factory.”
I didn’t need to be told twice; I grabbed my plate and bounded up the narrow servants’ staircase to my room, a little shoebox in the attic where I spent six nights a week.
I sat cross-legged on my bed, hunched over my food like a savage, licking gravy off my fingers as I paged through Harper’s. I’d like to tell you that I studied the articles carefully, absorbing worldly details about the Irish question and hostilities in the Balkans, or that I tutted disapprovingly over the latest spiteful cartoons from Thomas Nasty. But I never did care much for politics, and there were no Travel and Adventure stories in this issue to tempt me. So instead I pored over the illustrations, wondering if my own sketches demonstrated enough skill to impress an editor at Harper’s or Frank Leslie’s. Reaching for my journal, I let it fall open to its most beloved page: a charcoal sketch of a certain gentleman whose likeness I knew nearly as well as my own. I hope it won’t sound boastful if I say that even Mr. Wiltshire’s own mother would have called the resemblance striking. Every feature had been lovingly rendered: the pale eyes beneath straight dark brows; the high cheekbones and fine nose; the angular jaw framed by a neatly trimmed beard. It was true in every detail but one: I couldn’t seem to capture the soul of him, that thoughtful expression that was at once gentle and sharp, reserved and yet curious. The eyes in my sketch were dull and flat, with nothing to suggest the man behind them had any depth at all.
I put the drawing away, resolving to try my hand at reproducing the illustration on the cover of Harper’s. I’d wait until month’s end, and if there was enough money left over after I’d paid Mam’s rent, I’d treat myself to a new journal and maybe even some ribbon to fix my bonnet. “There, you see, Clara?” I murmured to myself. “I know the difference between dreams and goals.”
I brought my plate back down to the kitchen before heading up the main staircase to prepare Mr. Wiltshire’s bedroom for the night. I knocked softly, though I knew he wasn’t there, having learned the hard way that it was best to make sure. (That, my friends, is a story all its own, and may have more than a little to do with the origins of my feelings for my employer. If you should find yourself becoming spoony for a young man, seeing the object of your budding affections in nothing but a pair of half-unbuttoned trousers will surely seal your fate.)
But I digress.
Satisfied the room was empty, I set about my chores, winding the clock and trimming the lamps and so forth. I fussed with his fountain pen and his shirt studs and his griffin cuff links, straightening them all just so. But it wasn’t long until I noticed something out of place. Being meticulously tidy, Mr. Wiltshire was not given to leaving his papers strewn about, so the envelope sitting on his dressing table fairly cried out for my attention. Taking it up, I saw that it was unsealed, so I opened it (yes, I know—you will have many such occasions to exclaim at my behavior) and discovered a pair of tickets to the Metropolitan Opera. Nothing much in that, but two things struck me as unusual. First, the opera in question was by Richard Wagner, and it so happened that I had heard Mr. Wiltshire express a particular dislike for Wagner not two weeks before, over sherry with his good friend Mr. Burrows. Second, the tickets were for the evening of January 2, 1886—in other words, for a performance that had taken place the night before.
I glanced about the room. Had he even come home last night? The bed didn’t look to have been slept in, but that didn’t tell me much, since Mrs. Sellers would have tidied the room this morning. Taking a quick inventory of his shirt studs, I saw that the mother-of-pearl set was missing. He’d worn those on Saturday, and he never wore the same set two days in a row. No, he definitely hadn’t come home. I wondered what sort of urgent matter had arisen to cause my employer to be so detained.
I didn’t know it at the time, but detained was quite possibly the understatement of the year.
I went to bed feeling troubled. And by the time I woke up, the coppers were already there.
Copyright © 2018 by Erin Lindsey