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The main salon in the home atop San Francisco’s Sutro Heights was ablaze with electric light from several ornate crystal chandeliers. Beyond the sheer white curtains at the row of French doors leading to the terrace and the raised overlook beyond, thickening swirls of a quickly encroaching fog were visible. The salon was the largest room in the relatively small, turreted residence Adolph Sutro had built around the cottage he’d purchased on these twenty-two clifftop acres in 1881, its dour design probably influenced by the architecture of his native Prussia. The salon’s walls were pale yellow; the gowns of the “buds”—debutantes newly released into adult society—reflected all the hues of spring.
Sabina stood near the French doors, envying the buds’ attire. Her own gown—a green crepe loaned to her by her society cousin, Callie French—seemed staid in comparison to the peau de soies and taffetas and chiffons and satins of the younger women. But she was here at the Sutro home on business, not to display her sense of fashion.
Young and older women and their escorts whirled around the polished floor to the music supplied by a five-piece orchestra. Adolph Sutro himself, “King of the Comstock Lode” and the city’s new Populist Party mayor, sat in an ornately carved chair near the musicians, smiling benignly at his guests. With his bushy muttonchop whiskers and swooping mustache, his considerable girth and fine clothing, he resembled a monarch surveying his loyal subjects.
Sabina returned her gaze to the object of her surveillance: Virginia St. Ives, eighteen-year-old daughter of Joseph and Margaret St. Ives, prominent members of San Francisco society. Joseph St. Ives had made his fortune in the California gold fields, and like Adolph Sutro, had increased it substantially through shrewd real estate investments; his wife was related to the famous—some said infamous—Hearst family of mining and newspaper holdings. Virginia and her older brother, David, were heirs to an impressive fortune.
Unfortunately, at least as far as their parents were concerned, both offspring refused to conform to their high station. David was reputedly one of the crowd of young blades who frequented the Cocktail Route, the nightly procession that began in the financial district as the banks and brokerage houses closed down, and ended, for some, in Uptown Tenderloin gambling parlors and bawdy houses and Barbary Coast dives. Virginia rejected the company of suitable young men, and had recently begun a misalliance with one Lucas Whiffing, a clerk in a downtown bicycle and sporting goods emporium. As if that weren’t enough to make him an unsuitable suitor, Lucas presently lived with his family in Carville-by-the-Sea, a ragtag community mostly composed of abandoned streetcars that sprawled among the sand dunes some distance south of Sutro Heights.
Over the past two weeks, Virginia had been absent from the St. Ives’ home twice, giving her parents flimsy and transparent excuses. A few days ago she had been seen dining in a public place with young Whiffing. Her parents were worried that Virginia’s deepening involvement with him would lead to an elopement, or something even more tawdry; their fears had led them to engage Sabina the day before, to keep watch on their potentially wayward daughter while they went to Sacramento to attend a series of political functions important to Joseph’s gubernatorial aspirations.
Sabina did not like the assignment—would, indeed, have refused it if John hadn’t convinced her that it was an entrée to other lucrative jobs for members of San Francisco’s upper class. She personally believed that a young woman had a right to pursue her passions, as she herself had done when she became a “Pink Rose”—one of the small, select group of female operatives of the Pinkerton International Detective Agency—at the tender age of twenty-two. Besides, she had researched the Whiffing family; Lucas might only be working as a store clerk, but he came of good stock. His father, James Whiffing, was a respectable and moderately well-off businessman. The fact that the Whiffings chose to live part of the year in Carville may have branded them as eccentric and offended the St. Ives’ sensibilities, but Sabina saw nothing wrong with preferring bohemian beach life to city congestion.
Still, she had had to agree with John: Carpenter and Quincannon, Professional Detective Services, could scarcely afford to turn away well-heeled clients in these difficult economic times. The Panic of 1893 had been partially fueled by railroad overbuilding and the dubious financing thereof, which in turn culminated in bank failures and a steep decline in the value of the American dollar. Construction of new buildings and employment had fallen off, resulting in violent labor strikes. Businesses went under; agriculture was depressed by storm, drought, and—in the few good seasons—overproduction.
The situation, in this late spring of 1895, was less dire, but times remained hard for most of the populace. The wealthy, such as Adolph Sutro, remained solvent, of course, and continued to stage elaborate entertainments, such as the present one. The poor—such as the old woman named Annie who camped somewhere in Sabina’s Russian Hill neighborhood and furtively ate the fish Sabina put out for her, mistaking it for cat food—were even more wretched than before.
It was people like the old woman who made Sabina somewhat contemptuous of Virginia St. Ives. She’d now spent an entire day, more or less, in constant company with the young blond-haired woman, and had found her petulant, selfish, and willful. The girl had barely spoken to her, except to attempt to issue orders as if she were a servant. (“Bring me my cup of tea.… Hand me that fan.… Help lace me up.”)
Sabina was contemptuous of the young woman’s parents as well: their insistence upon a “suitable” match for their daughter and their disregard for their son’s irresponsible behavior grated upon her. Her own life had not been easy—her husband Stephen’s sudden death from an assassin’s bullet during a Pinkerton assignment in Denver five years ago had left her devastated—but she had learned to cope with its painful aspects and had built a new and rewarding life for herself here in San Francisco. Her partner had suffered his share of tragedy as well, having overcome a period of alcohol-soaked hell fueled by guilt over the accidental shooting death of a pregnant woman while an operative for the U.S. Secret Service, and reestablished himself as a splendid detective, an agreeable coworker, and a gentleman. Well, a gentleman most of the time. If only he would stop making amorous advances toward her …
Actually, though, John’s advances were more worshipful, clumsy, and endearing than overtly seductive. He could be tough and dangerous when circumstances called for it; his vast ego was sometimes irritating, as was his tendency to bluster and grumble and seethe when things didn’t go his way. But underneath he was a sensitive, easily wounded soul who read the poetry of Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson for relaxation.
The musicians had switched from a series of lively rounds and reels to a Viennese waltz, and Virginia had reluctantly accepted an invitation to dance with her “escort” for the evening, her sleekly handsome, sandy-haired older brother. The girl looked beautiful in her flowing white gown, a pink silk scarf adorned with butterflies fluttering from her swanlike neck, a small crocheted chatelaine handbag on her wrist. Sabina moved her feet and swayed a little, remembering when she and Stephen had stepped on to the dance floors in various ballrooms in Chicago and Denver. She hadn’t danced in years, not since his death. Would she ever again?
Not with anyone in this crowd. For one thing, she was working. And for another, none of the dozen or so men of all ages who had approached her had appealed to her in the slightest.
She almost wished John were here. He had offered to accompany her—she could easily have gotten him an invitation—and he would have made a handsome escort, but he lacked the patience and prudence for this kind of elaborate affair. It would have bored him silly, perhaps to the point of saying or doing something rash. And his presence might well have been a distraction: she would have had to keep an eye on him as well as on Virginia. Besides, he had more important business on his mind—such as the recent Wells, Fargo Express robbery and his hope for word from one of his Barbary Coast contacts that would put him on the trail of the holdup artist and the substantial reward the company was offering.
Sabina sighed and moved to a slightly different vantage point. Among the guests she spied Ralstons and Crockers, Huntingtons and Judahs. Many of San Francisco’s social elite were present, as an invitation from Adolph Sutro was considered as something of a command performance. It was such an exclusive Friday evening gathering that not even Callie and her husband, Hugh, the president of the Miners Bank, had been invited.
Callie had nonetheless graciously instructed Sabina in comportment and how to remain inconspicuous at such events. “Take up a position against a wall away from the seated ladies and the refreshment buffet. Appear to be having a good time, but don’t allow your gaze to linger on anyone too long. Loop a fan around your wrist and when you’re asked to dance, flutter it and say you’re feeling a bit faint. If any of the gentlemen persist, fix them with one of your icy stares.”
“I do not have an icy stare!”
Callie had snorted in a most unladylike fashion. “Now,” she’d continued, “and this is important: do not fidget, do not consult any timepiece, smile at and nod to any and all who acknowledge you, and pay no attention to any of those hippopotamus-faced matrons who give you pitying glances because they consider you a wallflower.”
Dear Callie. Sabina had followed her advice to the letter and it had gotten her through the evening well enough thus far. But she was glad she hadn’t taken another piece of advice her cousin had dispensed, that she would look even better in her gown if she were to wear one of Callie’s Invigorator Corsets. “Doctor recommended to smooth your shape while not unduly compressing your organs. And they support your back and shoulders, so as to expand your chest.”
“No, no, no!” Sabina had exclaimed. “The last thing I want or need is to have my chest expanded. These gowns are bad enough: I could trip over those flounces and the lace makes my neck itch. I can put up with that for an evening, but I draw the line at a corset.”
The orchestra was now playing another, even more spirited tune. One of Charles Crocker’s heirs clasped to his considerable corporation a young woman whose expression said she wished someone would rescue her. Another of the buds grimaced in pain as a member of Mark Hopkins’s family stepped on her foot. Old gentlemen ogled buds and matrons alike; most of those who noticed sniffed with disdain. A few, however, condescended to take the floor with those who asked them, and seemed to be thoroughly enjoying themselves.
Virginia St. Ives was not one of them.
The rebellious debutante and her brother had left the dance floor; now they were standing near the buffet, David partaking of the generous feast, while Virginia conferred with a singularly unattractive young woman named Grace DeBrett. Grace was evidently Virginia’s best friend and had visited her that afternoon to squeal over her gown and accessories. When their present conversation ended, Grace shrugged and moved away to the buffet. Virginia turned, saw Sabina watching her; a frown darkened her pretty features and she stared back for several seconds, then flounced around the dance floor to Sabina’s side. Anger blazed in the girl’s blue eyes.
“Look, you,” she said in a harsh, low tone, grabbing Sabina’s forearm, “must you watch me every single minute?”
Sabina removed her hand and responded quietly and courteously, even though she would have preferred to shake or slap some manners into the post-deb. “You know that’s what your parents hired me to do.”
“Well, it’s gone on long enough! I can’t go anywhere or do anything without your eyes all over me. You haven’t the right to even be at this party, you … you common old chaperone!”
The words smarted, mainly because Sabina did feel a bit like an old chaperone in her borrowed gown. She swallowed a sharp retort, answered in the same even tones, “Such displays of temper are not becoming, young lady. You should learn to respect your elders.”
The bud’s mouth tightened. “I see no reason to respect anyone who keeps harassing me.”
“You’re not being harassed, Miss St. Ives. Merely looked after for your own good, as per your father’s wishes.”
“My father’s wishes! I haven’t seen or communicated with Lucas Whiffing in … I don’t even remember the last time.”
“You had a rendezvous with him only a few days ago. That and your two poorly explained absences in the past two weeks are the reasons I was employed.”
“Well … what if I did see him just once? A public rendezvous at a respectable restaurant. What’s wrong with that?”
“You know how your parents feel about Mr. Whiffing—”
“I don’t care how they feel!” Her voice had risen; a couple nearby turned to look at her. “They don’t trust me. They think I’ll toss my bonnet over the windmill if I haven’t already!”
Sabina was surprised. Of course Virginia would know the euphemism for having premarital relations—all young women of whatever station did—but for her to speak the words in such surroundings as these, and within hearing of others …
The post-deb’s eyes were welling with tears. She put a hand to her brow and said in a loud, dramatic voice, “Now see what you’ve done? You’ve made me cry!”
“Hush. People are staring.”
“Let them stare. I don’t care, I don’t care about anything anymore! You’ll see! You and my parents and everybody else!” And with that she whirled and rushed away.
Several of the guests cast disapproving looks at Sabina, who ignored them as she set out after the girl. But the swirl of dancers impeded her progress; Virginia had passed through the door from the salon into the front part of the house before she could catch her.
The hallway beyond the door was deserted. The ladies’ room was close by and Sabina thought the deb must have gone in there. But when she quickly checked, there was no sign of Virginia inside. From there Sabina hastened into the front vestibule—just in time to see her charge moving toward the main entrance doors.
The girl gave no indication that she’d heard. She yanked one of the doors open and plunged through into the torchlit darkness beyond.
Sabina ran to the door and stopped it from closing, but not before an edge of it caught the hem of her cumbersome skirt. She pulled free, tearing the fabric, and looked out. Through the cold, billowing fog that swirled across the grounds, she spied Virginia hurrying at an angle away from the main carriageway where the row of parked coaches that had brought the guests waited.
Hurrying where? And why had the silly girl fled without taking either wrap or coat?
Copyright © 2013 by the Pronzini-Muller Family Trust