A nineteenth-century "Legally Blonde": a new series featuring Sarah Woolson, an intelligent, outspoken young attorney in 1880 San Francisco.
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Murder On Nob Hill
By Shirley Tallman
St. Matin's PressCopyright © 2004 Shirley Tallman
All rights reserved.
Despite claims to the contrary — some, I fear, voiced by members of my own family — I pride myself on being an honest woman. As a matter of principle, I hold dissimulation of any kind in contempt. That said, I probably should add that I also subscribe to the old adage "God helps those who help themselves," even if this sometimes entails being economical with the truth.
If this last statement seems contradictory, I apologize. What I'm trying to explain is how I found myself poised on the brink of the most extraordinary adventure of my, to date, twenty-seven years. Despite being essentially an ethical person, you see, I had told a lie. More to the point, I had deliberately misled a group of narrow-minded men into assuming something I knew to be untrue. Furthermore, I do not regret my actions. Faced with the same circumstances, I would not hesitate to resort to this ruse again.
In this year of our Lord 1880, those individuals who continue to hold that females should be denied educational opportunities beyond those required to secure a good marriage will undoubtedly blame my dear father for my "unwomanly moral turpitude" (their words, not mine). While I take full responsibility for my actions, I have to admit that this criticism is not without a grain of truth. Were it not for Papa — the Honorable Horace T. Woolson, Superior Court Judge for the County of San Francisco — I doubt I would have been standing on the corner of Clay and Kearny Streets, staring up at the law offices occupied by Shepard, Shepard, McNaughton and Hall.
The morning fog that had billowed in that morning through San Francisco's Golden Gate had begun to dissipate, taking with it the heavy, moisture-laden air that, even in late summer, can seep through one's clothing. While I'm not particularly affected by the cold, I did consider the emergence of the sun to be a good omen. Or perhaps I was looking for any sign, no matter how fanciful, to bolster my resolve. I realize I am considered by many — including the before-mentioned members of my family — to be willful and outspoken, unfeminine and certainly foolhardy in my determination to follow my own path in this world. What would these critics say, I thought with some irony, if they could see the unladylike beads of perspiration forming on my brow, or the cowardly pounding of my heart as I studied those unwelcoming windows?
But I was procrastinating, putting off the mission I had worked so long and so hard to achieve. Straightening my dress — I had chosen a two-piece pewter-gray suit with as little bustle as I could get away with since the reemergence of the overstuffed derriere — I checked the lapel watch pinned to my shirtwaist. Five minutes to the hour. Time to put my plan to the test!
Purposefully I crossed Kearny Street and entered the building. A directory in the lobby revealed that Shepard, Shepard, McNaughton and Hall held offices on the sixth floor, a level that I speedily, if somewhat jerkily, reached by means of one of Elisha Otis's new hydraulic elevators, or "rising rooms" as they were popularly called. The office I sought was guarded by a solid oak door upon which the firm's name had been discreetly embossed.
I entered a room furnished with half a dozen desks, behind which sat as many clerks. The one seated nearest the door rose and, adjusting his spectacles, inquired of my business.
"My name is Sarah Woolson," I said, with what I hoped was a confident smile. "I have an appointment to see Mr. Shepard."
I'm tall for a woman — a full five feet eight inches in my stocking feet — and I towered over the clerk, forcing him to look up at me at an angle. I have noticed that this makes some men uneasy.
"Miss Woolson? I don't seem to recall —" He checked an appointment book. "Ah, yes, I see we were expecting Mr. Samuel Woolson." He looked at me hopefully. "Your husband, perhaps?"
"Samuel is my brother," I said, forcing another smile. "I believe you were expecting S. L. Woolson. That is I."
The clerk's bony brow creased with uncertainty. "Oh, dear. Well, ah, yes. Perhaps I had better fetch Mr. Shepard."
"Thank you," I said, forbearing to remind him that was what I'd requested in the first place. The clerk scurried down a hallway, and as I waited for his return, I took stock of my surroundings.
The room was larger than I had originally thought; the wood paneling, as well as the way the clerks' desks were wedged in one upon another, made it appear dim and cramped. Against the back wall were four doors, the top half of each paned with glass. Inside these cubicles — for they were hardly bigger than large closets — sat what I presumed to be legal associates. At that moment one of them looked up and our eyes met. He seemed surprised, then annoyed, as if my chance glance had invaded his privacy. He glowered at me rudely, then with a scowl returned to his papers.
I won't attempt to deceive you. For a moment I forgot my manners and stared openly at the man. He was a remarkable-looking creature: long, clean-shaven, craggy face topped by a thatch of unruly red hair, skin burned to a golden bronze, tie askew beneath a slightly rumpled white shirt. Even seated, he was obviously very tall, and his shoulders were broad, as if he were no stranger to manual labor. I was surprised to find such a man inside an office at all, especially one of such limited dimensions.
As if sensing my eyes upon him, the man looked up at me again, this time with a glare so fierce I was taken aback. With a withering look of my own, I turned away in time to see the clerk returning, followed by a portly gentleman in his sixties, whom I recognized as Joseph Shepard, Sr., founder and senior partner of the firm. He had occasionally visited our home during my childhood, and I had always been fascinated by his thick shock of white hair and by the trumpeting sound he made at the back of his nose whenever he was annoyed, or when someone took exception to his views. It was obvious from the senior partner's distracted stare that he could not as easily place me.
"My clerk informs me there has been a misunderstanding, Miss Woolson." He placed his pince-nez atop a bulbous nose and subjected me to a squinting appraisal. "Mr. Samuel Woolson, whom my clerk informs me is your brother, has applied to our firm for the position of associate attorney. I assumed I would be meeting with him this morning."
"I regret the confusion, Mr. Shepard, but it was I who applied for the position. The qualifications listed are mine, as are the initials, S. L., which stand for Sarah Lorraine."
"They are also your brother's initials," he stated in annoyance. "It's common knowledge that Judge Woolson's youngest son has been preparing for a career in law. What were we to think when we received your letter?"
"I hoped you would think that S. L. Woolson was eminently qualified to be taken on as an associate attorney in your firm."
"But you're a woman!"
"As is Clara Shortridge Foltz," I replied, determined not to be intimidated. "And that good lady has been practicing California law for four years. In this very city."
"I meant, Miss Woolson, that such a situation is impossible in this firm. Everyone knows that the sphere of women, vitally important as that is, belongs in the home."
This feeble but popularly held argument never failed to raise my hackles. "I know that is where men have placed us and where they would prefer us to remain. However, I see no reason why misguided reasoning should interfere with rational behavior."
There was a shocked stillness in the room. Mr. Shepard's face suffused with blood, and for a moment I was afraid he might be suffering some sort of seizure. Then he started that dreadful sound at the back of his nose and I realized my words had brought on a fit of pique. Since there was little I could do to retract them now — even if I'd been so inclined — I decided to press on with my qualifications.
"As I stated in my letter, I passed my bar examinations last year and continue to read law with my father, Judge Horace Woolson, whom I believe you know and respect. At the risk of appearing immodest, I am confident I possess the intelligence and character necessary to practice law in your firm."
During most of this recitation, the senior partner had sputtered incoherently. "That is patently ridiculous!" he exclaimed when I had finished. "It is a well-founded fact that women lack the nerve or strength of body for such a rigorous profession."
Another statement so ludicrous I couldn't stop myself from blurting, "I find it strange that practicing law in a comfortable, well-heated office is considered too demanding an occupation for women, yet laboring from dawn's first light in crowded, drafty, ill-lit sweatshops is not."
Joseph Shepard seemed incapable of speech. Belatedly, he realized that everyone in the room was watching us. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the red-haired man standing outside his cubicle, his mouth pulled into an ironic smile. I felt my face flush and turned away, aware that I would require all my wits to penetrate the formidable barrier of Mr. Shepard's prejudice.
"Miss Woolson," said the attorney, his several chins quivering with suppressed anger. "Out of deference to your father, I will ignore the underhanded means by which you gained entry into this office. However, the feminine hysterics you just displayed prove why women will never be able to practice law. I advise you to return home and —"
Whatever I was supposed to return home and do was lost as the door opened and a woman, perhaps a year or two younger than myself and fashionably attired in widow's black, stepped in. She had fair hair and a porcelain complexion, which contrasted starkly with her dark gown and hat. Normally, her azure eyes must have been her best feature. Today, they were red-rimmed and accentuated by dark circles, causing me to wonder whom she had lost to cause such pain.
Mr. Shepard's face instantly brightened and he hurried over to take the woman's hand. "Mrs. Hanaford," he gushed, "if you had sent word, I would have called upon you at your home."
"My business couldn't wait, Mr. Shepard," she said, her voice soft but determined. "Mr. Wylde seems incapable of grasping the severity of my situation."
"My dear," replied the solicitor in soothing tones, "Mr. Wylde is doing everything possible to expedite this unfortunate affair. As I've endeavored to explain, your late husband's will must be admitted to probate. These things take time."
"But I have expenses to meet," she protested.
"I understand," the lawyer told her, although it seemed clear from his patronizing tone that he understood very little. "I wish I could help you, my dear, but I'm afraid Mr. Wylde must approve any advances on the estate. In the meantime, I'm sure a few simple economies will see you through." He gave her hand a perfunctory pat, then pulled out his pocket watch. "Oh, dear. I'm sorry, but I'm afraid I have a pressing appointment."
The stricken look on the young widow's face was more than I could bear. After all, the desire to do whatever I could to ensure that the scales of justice weighed evenly for women as well as for men had been one of the reasons I'd chosen to become an attorney. True, I knew little about the case, but I felt compelled to make an effort to ease her misery. In light of subsequent events, I assure you this was my sole motive for approaching Mrs. Hanaford and introducing myself.
"My name is Sarah Woolson and I am also an attorney. Perhaps if I understood your problem I might be of some assistance."
The woman's expression went from surprise to guarded hope. "Oh, Miss Woolson, if you only could!"
Joseph Shepard registered shock at my temerity, but before he could erupt in another fit of pique, I boldly took Mrs. Hanaford's arm and led her toward the nearest office. It wasn't until we were inside that I realized it was the cubicle belonging to the red-haired giant. Sure enough, its outraged owner came charging after us as I attempted to close the door.
"What do you think you're doing?" the man demanded, his voice flavored with a strong Scottish burr. Intense, blue-green eyes bored into mine. "This is my office."
"We require privacy," I said, as calmly as possible under the circumstances. Shepard had finally marshaled his indignation and was following like Old Ironsides in our wake. As I again tried to close the door, the man held it open with arms the size of small tree trunks. "Please, sir, let go! I must confer with my client."
"Miss Woolson!" The senior partner had reached the door, but the oversized junior attorney blocked his way. "Come out of there at once!" he ordered from behind his subordinate.
I thought I saw a muscle twitch in the younger man's face, and unexpectedly the door slammed shut in my face. I hastily gathered my wits and threw the lock before we could be ejected.
Turning my back to the door — and studiously ignoring the senior partner's howls of rage — I gave Mrs. Hanaford what I hoped was a professional smile and motioned her into the room's only chair. She hesitated, then took the seat.
"I take it you are recently widowed," I began, "and that there is a delay in settling your late husband's estate."
The woman lowered her eyes, perhaps to collect her thoughts, perhaps to avoid looking at Joseph Shepard who was now railing at the owner of the pirated cubicle.
"My name is Annjenett Hanaford," she said in a voice hardly above a whisper. "My husband, Cornelius, died three weeks ago. He —" She looked up at me, her blue eyes huge. "He was murdered."
"Murdered!" In my surprise I forgot dignity and sank onto the corner of the desk, causing several books to tumble onto the floor. Neither of us took any notice. "How did it happen?"
"He was stabbed. In his study. I was there when it happened. Not in the room, of course, but upstairs in my boudoir." "Have the police arrested anyone?"
A shadow crossed her lovely face. "Several items were stolen. They — the police seem certain it must have been an intruder. As yet, no one has been arrested."
I studied the woman. Something was troubling her, and I suspected it was more than the natural grief and shock one would expect after losing a spouse. She seemed frightened. But of what? Behind me, Shepard's pounding on the door became louder. Tempted as I was to probe further into the details, I decided to press on while there was still time.
"How long were you married, Mrs. Hanaford?"
"Seven years. I was nineteen when I — agreed to Mr. Hanaford's proposal."
"Did you bring any property or money into the marriage?"
She looked up, startled by my question. "Why, yes, I did. My father provided a generous dowry. Later, when my mother passed on, I received a substantial inheritance. Naturally, my husband managed these funds on my behalf."
"Naturally," I agreed dryly. This was neither the time nor the place to express my opinions concerning women's coverture, or civil death upon marriage, whereby the law merged the identity of wife and husband and severely limited her rights to inherit or own property. "The reason I ask is that the Married Women's Property Act entitles a wife to the separate property she brought to the marriage. I don't suppose you obtained your husband's antenuptial consent to retain control of your separate property?"
This notion was obviously foreign to her. Then she seemed to remember something. "Just before Cornelius commenced construction on our home, he had me sign something. As I recall, it listed my dowry, as well as my mother's bequest."
I felt a rush of excitement. To the best of my knowledge, the plan I contemplated was unprecedented in legal annals, at least those established on the West Coast. But I needed documentation.
"Do you have copies of these papers?" I asked intently.
"I don't know. My husband has a safe at home, of course, but I believe he kept most of his documents at his bank."
"Then that's an excellent place to begin." I rose from my perch on the desk in time to see Mr. Shepard insert a key in the lock. Our time alone was clearly at an end. "If it's agreeable, I will accompany you to your husband's bank to look for the papers."
Excerpted from Murder On Nob Hill by Shirley Tallman. Copyright © 2004 Shirley Tallman. Excerpted by permission of St. Matin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Shirley Tallman, a novelist and screenwriter, lives with her husband in Incline Village, Nevada.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
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When I ordered the first book in this historical mystery series, I was pleasantly surprised to find it well-written and inhabited by some interesting and truly wonderful characters. The book is set in 1880 San Francisco, and the author did a great job of adding period details that made me feel like I was actually there. I also loved the way she left clues to the murderer's identity, and still left me surprised when I reached the end of the book. I think Sarah Woolson is a terrific, feisty, determined heroine. Any woman who was brave enough to take on the male legal establishment at that time in California history, deserves a medal! MURDER ON NOB HILL kept me engrossed and turning pages until the very end. I highly recommend this wonderful new mystery series!! I can't wait to read Tallman's latest mystery, SCANDAL ON RINCON HILL!