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A Martha Beale Mystery
By Cordelia Frances Biddle
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2009 Cordelia Frances Biddle
All rights reserved.
AGNES MUNDER WALKS AWAY from Quaker City Mill, walks away without a backward glance or a single misgiving about jeopardizing her employment, or that of her husband who so doggedly toils there. In fact, she gives him no more heed than she does the place itself, for she knows she's meant for finer things than the noisome floors of a textile manufactory. Cloaks of damask rather than cheap cottonade should be at her daily disposal, and silk slippers, and bonnets trimmed with aigret, or fur, or flowers fashioned from genuine French peau de soie.
Oh, yes, she's aware of what the other laborers will say when they discover that she's quit her loom again. They'll accuse her of imagining herself "above her station;" they'll mutter that she's "fanciful" and "capricious" and "prettier than she should be." Many will even accuse her of being "not right in the head"—which words they'll pretend to whisper, sending sidelong glances toward her poor, patient Oscar—although some will take pleasure in denouncing her husband for "sanctioning her wistful, hedonistic ways." And a few will add sneering queries regarding the childless state of a wife who's twenty-two and has been wed for five long years.
But what does any of that malicious cant matter? Agnes has inured herself to the combination of mistrust and envy. The other weavers, spoolers, throstle-spinners, carders, and cord-room hands can carp and cavil all they wish; and her masters can threaten and then dock her wages—as they've done repeatedly. And will do so again, she has no doubt.
She shakes her head in queenly forbearance of these trivialities, then pulls a red ribbon from her mantle pocket, ties it round her neck, and lifts her long skirt and smiles. Given her diet and station in life, her teeth are incongruously white; their only flaw a curious overlapping of the front two. Although, the effect makes her appear more winsome and naïve as if she were still half-child, half-adult and her years had been spent in pampered luxury.
"Ah," she sighs aloud; her smile grows, beaming upon those around her. Casting herself as a lady of stature and means, she becomes one. So the true Agnes Munder is transformed, just as the streetscape improves, and the weather—the raw March day that threatens snow and worse—grows, in her invention, benign. Gone is the reeking, pulsing industrial heart of the city; gone is Fishtown and Otis Street where William Cramp and Sons build their vast iron ships, gone the Dyott Glass Furnace on Bank Street, the Vauclain Boiler Works that spread viscous, yellow puddles on Palmer, the stink-enclosed calico printing factory on Beach, the tanneries whose choking stench affects all but the hardiest of stomachs, the smelting works and the sugar refinery on Church Alley that belch out so much noxious waste it's a wonder there's any wholesome air left to breathe.
Gone also are the snowflakes that now have begun spiraling through the waning daylight, increasing in number and density while shrinking in size—an unwelcome change that often presages a blizzard.
Agnes trips along, oblivious to the truth. She holds her skirt just so—between her forefinger and thumb in the same dainty manner as the wives of the mill's managers—while she drifts away from the docks that carry Quaker City Mill's finished products to America's southern states or the great world beyond. For a moment, she considers how it would feel to be a bolt of cottonade or calico and wonders what marvels she'd behold if she were to be stored in the belly of a ship and then off-loaded onto foreign soil. How would those fantastical places smell? Would the sunlight blind the eye? Would there be music instead of grinding gears and catcalls and oaths? Would there be food aplenty—and not just food, but morsels of indescribable sweetness and delicacy?
As she wanders, her black hair comes loose, spilling down from the single braid coiled at the back of her neck until the locks make a frame for her face. She knows this haphazard appearance isn't seemly, because it garners curious and sometimes acquisitive looks from the men she passes. Agnes returns the hungry stares with a beneficent tilt of her head; to some men she even nods. Those who receive her attentions gape and then look away, frowning in recognition and confusion.
By now the snow is pelting down; it's like fire ash spewing from a dirty chimney, although, of course, it's white and frigid. The laborers employed along the wharfs or in the factories that comprise the city's commercial center glance upward in dread. For them, a continuation of the icy days of February is like doom. Pennies saved for food will have to be spent on additional fuel; sickly babies won't have the blessing of an early spring. Those men and women—and the child laborers among them—hunch their shoulders against the precipitation, lowering their heads as though waiting for God to strike them. Agnes remains unaffected.
Vanished wholly from her mind and heart is the filthy common privy built in a vault below the building she and her husband share with the other mill workers. Gone is the quarter of a day's wages withheld for tardiness, or the full day's earnings forfeited for poor work, or the salary paid but once a month when the rent must be delivered fortnightly. Vanished are the children chained to the looms' frames, whimpering while their hands and bodies keep time with the steam turbines' jittering roar. Forgotten also is the "spinners' phthisis," an affliction of the lungs that always leads to death. Instead, she sings to herself.
A carriage stops. It's a very fine rig, a handsome brougham painted glossy black, and the gelding pulling it is the same lustrous color. The owner raps upon the door; the coachman reins in the horse, and Agnes is hailed through the carriage's now half-open window.
When she approaches, the owner's greeting is a discomfited "My apologies, miss. I mistook you for an acquaintance."
Agnes is accustomed to this type of statement. Strange gentlemen in handsome rigs have summoned her before. How else could she have afforded the silk ribbon at her neck, the lengths of fabric for the cloak she's fashioned?
"It's no trouble, sir," she says. Her smile grows brighter, and she tosses her hair, which elicits a sharp intake of breath from the master and a quieter sigh from the servant who remains aloft, his attention seemingly on the wet and steaming beast in the carriage traces.
"Are you employed hereabouts?" she's asked, but her response is a cagey shake of her dark curls. Agnes never supplies her name or the name of the mill. "Or perhaps you work on your own?"
"Perhaps I do, sir."
"And perhaps you'd care for a ride in my equipage?"
"That I would, sir. Indeed, I would, especially with the snow starting to make my path so treacherous. And me with such a sorry excuse for shoes."
With that the coach door opens, and Agnes climbs up the steps into an interior that smells of new leather, polished brass, and eau de cologne. It's a heady, rich scent and far superior to the oily odor of smoked and curing river eels that has given Fishtown its name. She inhales the pleasant aroma as if by swelling her lungs with it she could grow as wealthy and self-satisfied as the gentleman seated in that handsome space.
The brougham's curtains are drawn shut; the owner taps his cane's silver handle upon the wall leading to the coachman's box, and the carriage moves away toward a less congested thoroughfare while Agnes smiles her glowing smile at her unknown admirer. "The hem of my dress is drenched," she says at length. "And my little feet quite frozen. I should have better footwear than I do."CHAPTER 2
A Troubling Letter
NO MORE THAN A MILE distant from this transaction—although the setting might as well be one of those exotic climes for which Agnes longs—Martha Beale is seated in comfort. The surprise snowstorm that rattles the shutters and casements of her home on Chestnut Street and the night through which the blizzard rages are of no more consequence to her than the reality of the physical world is to Agnes.
Surrounded as she is by every manifestation of her wealth and her elevated position in society—the glossy suite of walnut furniture, the Turkey carpets with their lustrous crimson and indigo hues, the several layers of under and over draperies that cover the windows, the pier glasses, the landscape paintings in their gilded frames, and the myriad objets d'art that adorn all fashionable households—she should be experiencing the highest degree of peace and tranquility. In fact, the opposite is true. Martha stares into a fire that's been carefully banked and attended by her servants and sees woes instead of solace, hears the muffled sounds of domesticity—her adoptive children attending to their lessons in the day nursery on the floor above, the creak of polished wood planking as the majordomo crosses the foyer below—and knows only loneliness and heartache. Even the aromas of hot-house flowers and pomander and eau de lavande that fill her private sitting room seem stifling rather than soothing, and her clothes chafe and pinch and feel frigid against her skin instead of providing warmth.
She releases a sigh; her corset stays sigh with her; her feet in their embroidered slippers kick aside the tapestry footstool; and the letter resting in her lap—and which she's reread so often she has it memorized—slides to the floor. She watches the pages fall, then reaches an enervated hand to pick them up. Her eyes stare at the letters curled upon the paper until the lines blur and the words collide.
It is with heavy heart that I write you. I could not bear to call upon you in person in order to reveal my intentions, as I knew my resolve would weaken, and my plans come to naught. So I have chosen the coward's way and now steal off aboard a merchant ship that calls herself Red Cloud before you can persuade me otherwise—before I can persuade myself. The vessel is a stout one; the captain seasoned and knowledgeable ...
She rises, carrying Thomas Kelman's missive to her escritoire where she flattens it on the polished surface as she's done numerous times since its arrival a fortnight prior. Her palm bears down hard upon the creases as if she were attempting to eradicate a stain.
Other letters also rest there—supposedly casual messages from gentlemen acquaintances whom she suspects of more intimate designs. She's an eligible heiress and, at the advanced age of twenty-seven, too old to put off marriage much longer. Those notes and invitations she bundles up, intending to consign them to a cubbyhole reserved for future correspondence. Instead, following some as yet unexamined motive, she grips the sheets of paper—thick, watermarked, many even scented with eau de cologne—and throws them into the fire, watching the flames flicker around the edges while her eyes pinch and her wide mouth sets itself into a merciless line.
The defiant act brings only momentary respite, however. The hurt, perplexity—and, yes, anger—that she feels cannot be absolved by attacking a surrogate. She returns to Kelman's letter.
I am fully cognizant of the fact that in leaving the city, the (mistaken) results of the Crowther investigation will be blamed upon my inaction or dereliction—or both—and that my failure to explain the circumstances surrounding the case will make me appear to have relinquished the field without having given consideration to the repercussions. In short, I will be vilified, and my decision to seek my future and my fortunes elsewhere will be deemed the act of a dishonest man.
It's not the missteps of the past that influence me, however, but you, Martha. The tragic conclusion to the Crowther affair—although deeply troubling still—has nothing to do with my resolution to quit Philadelphia. In the eyes of the world, I am not your equal, nor will I ever be. You are a high-born lady. My parentage is base. You are in possession of a great fortune; I live by my wits. Forgive my bluntness in these matters, but I fear you would be ridiculed by your peers—and perhaps even ostracized—if they were to guess that you had given your heart to a person like me—and that mine had been pledged to you. As to matrimony, you and I both know custom is firmly against us. No matter how much we may wish otherwise, no matter how often we may have imagined otherwise, the fact is that the many levels of society that comprise the city would never countenance such a union.
I will write to you when I have determined where I will settle, so that your thoughts may be at rest, but as that will be some months hence, I urge you not to wait for my message ...
Martha spins away from the desk. Her stomach churns; her gray eyes spark like hot coals. Am I not allowed to participate in this debate? she argues. Thomas determines how both of us should behave, and I must keep my counsel? Reside quietly at home, my countenance serene, a vapid smile fixed upon my face as though my greatest worries were the visits we ladies are supposed to pay one another, or how often and how grandly I should entertain those of my acquaintance? Shouldn't I be permitted to choose whom I should wed and when? Couldn't Thomas at least have conferred with me before taking this drastic step—or given me a hint of warning about this Red Cloud and his plans? Am I to be treated no differently by him than I was by my father?
The questions, though, are met with a litany of dull and practical evidence. As much as she wants to believe herself above public scrutiny, she understands that what Thomas writes is true. A city founded on the tenet of religious freedom may sanction marriages between peoples of one faith and another: Gentiles may happily wed Jews; Catholics may form loving bonds with Protestants; those originally hailing from New England may ally themselves with Southern, slave-owning families. But class lines are never crossed. The rich keep to themselves. As do the poor.
At length, her wrath begins to ebb, leaving her spent and weary. There's no Thomas to chide for adhering to custom, no dear, dear friend to touch her hand or lift her face up toward his own. There are no arms to encircle her, no scent of shaving soap and starched linen and maleness to breathe. The room is empty. It's as if he'd never walked through the door. Having grown accustomed to his presence during the past year, her sense of isolation feels more acute than it did during the years before they met.
She sighs anew; this time the sound is a groan. Why must he journey on a merchant ship? And why to South America? Why not the western territories if he's so insistent on becoming a man of means? There's ample opportunity there—without the danger. With winter lingering, the Atlantic Ocean must he hazardous to traverse. In her heart, she knows the answers to these objections. Didn't her father, the lauded financier Lemuel Beale, instigate trade in specie with the newest nations of the Americas? And doesn't she, as his sole heir, continue the practice? Why shouldn't Thomas also avail himself of those profits? Isn't risk part of life?
"Oh ... oh ... oh!" The words fly out with all the vindictiveness of oaths. If she were her friend, Becky Grey Taitt, the invective might be genuine, but Martha doesn't permit herself such hedonistic displays.
She studies her room, dim now and swathed in shadow, a pewterish color touching the silver toilette suite arranged upon her dressing table: the brushes and frizettes, the mirror and fingernail buffs, the jars containing pomade and rose water and bandoline. Here should be a realm so peaceable that no malign thoughts can enter. Instead, the ordinary seems fraught with ill intentions, and the unlit corners of the chamber lurk with demons.
AND SO THE DAY passes into evening and thence into night while the claustrophobic fall of snow upon snow encompasses the city. The stout walls and tall windows of Martha's stately mansion are cut off from her neighbors'; the street fronting her house is isolated from the lanes beyond; well-tended parks become no more than a dot or two of sulfur-colored light where the gas lamps glow; back alleys devolve into their own icy worlds.
Excerpted from Without Fear by Cordelia Frances Biddle. Copyright © 2009 Cordelia Frances Biddle. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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