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Westchester County, New York, September 1903
“I think I may be in a spot of trouble,” I said.
Mrs. Sullivan looked up sharply from her needlework. I read a succession of expressions pass over her face—shock, dismay, disgust—then finally she said, “Oh, well, these things happen, I suppose. Luckily you have your wedding date planned and it wouldn’t be the first baby to arrive remarkably early.”
“What?” It took a moment for the penny to drop, then I started laughing. “No, it’s nothing like that. Actually I only meant that I think I’ve sewn the wrong sides of this bodice together.” I held up the offending handiwork.
She took it from me, examined it, then sighed. “Goodness, child. However did you manage to grow up without learning the rudiments of sewing? Did your mother not teach you anything?”
“If you remember, my mother died when I was ten,” I said. “After that I had to do my share of darning and patching, but that was about it. I’ve certainly never had to sew fine fabrics like this.”
“Then it’s fortunate that we’ve no bridesmaids’ dresses to make as well, isn’t it?” she muttered, not looking up as she started unpicking stitches. “Although it’s a shame we’ve no little flower girl. I always think they add something special to a wedding. I did suggest that we ask the Van Kempers’ granddaughter…”
“I don’t know the Van Kempers’ granddaughter,” I said. “I’d feel awkward having a stranger as part of my wedding procession. There was one little girl I was very fond of—little Bridie. I believe I told you about the child I brought across from Ireland who lived with me for a while. I did send an invitation to her family, but I’ve received no response, so I can only assume that they’ve moved on.” I sighed. Or that they thought a wedding in Westchester County sounded too grand for them, being the simplest of Irish peasants.
Mrs. Sullivan nodded and looked at me with genuine sympathy for once. “’Tis a shame that you’ll have hardly any guests of your own at the wedding, and no family at all—except those two brothers. Fugitives from the law, didn’t you say?”
“With the Irish republican freedom fighters,” I corrected her, although I suspected she remembered well what I had told her. “I don’t even know where they are anymore.” I stared out across the dewy lawn. A mockingbird was singing its heart out in the plum tree. It was so peaceful and safe here, while my brothers were off somewhere, still fighting for the Irish republican cause.
Daniel’s mother and I had been sitting on her porch swing, enjoying the sweet morning air before the day became too hot, while we worked on making my trousseau. At least, she had been doing most of the making while I did a lot of unpicking, each set of removed stitches leaving a trail of little dots on the creamy white silk.
It hadn’t been my idea, believe me. I already knew my lack of prowess with the needle and would have been quite happy to have left my wedding gown to a Manhattan dressmaker. This was Daniel’s idea. He thought it would be a great way for me to get to know my future mother-in-law better and to learn some housewifely skills from her at the same time. Actually I knew what his real reason was: he wanted me safely out of the city so that I wouldn’t be tempted to take on any more detective assignments.
In theory I had no objections to spending a couple of weeks in the pleasant leafy atmosphere of Westchester County while the city sizzled in the muggy August heat. I had looked forward to having nothing to worry about except finishing my trousseau on time for my September wedding. I had had my fill of danger and was ready to admit that had I been a cat, I would have used at least eight of my nine lives. The reality of my current situation wasn’t exactly as sweet as I had imagined. While Daniel’s mother had welcomed me politely for Daniel’s sake, she had also made it perfectly clear that I didn’t measure up to her expectations for her only son. She and Daniel’s recently departed father had scrimped and saved to give Daniel a good education. They had moved out to Westchester County so that he could mix with the best families. He had fulfilled their dreams by becoming the youngest captain in the New York police. He had been engaged to the daughter of one of those rich families, but then he had broken it off in favor of marrying me—Molly Murphy, recently come from a peasant cottage in Ireland, with no money, no background.
The fact that Daniel’s mother and father had come from similar beginnings was never mentioned. From the way she talked, one would have thought that she’d been born with the proverbial silver spoon in her mouth. I had endured her subtle criticisms with a patience verging on saintliness that would have amazed those who knew my usual quick temper, wanting for Daniel’s sake to keep the peace and even to make my mother-in-law like me. But after ten days my patience was wearing awfully thin.
She took the rest of the silk from me. “You’d better let me finish this and you stick to the undergarments,” she said. “In my young day they always said that if a woman wasn’t handy with her needle, her children would go in rags.”
“Then it’s lucky that I’m going to live in New York City where there are plenty of department stores selling ready-made clothes, isn’t it?” I replied sweetly.
She pursed her lips. “Ready-made clothes? You’ll make my son a pauper if you start off married life with ideas like that.”
“Actually I do know how to use a sewing machine, if someone likes to give me one for a wedding present,” I said. “I worked in a garment factory once.”
“A garment factory? Did you?” The disapproving look again, as if I’d dropped yet another notch in her estimation. “Daniel never mentioned that to me.”
I didn’t think that Daniel had mentioned a lot of things I had done while working as an investigator. My profession was a constant thorn in his side. But I didn’t want my future mother-in-law thinking that I had been reduced to working in a sweatshop. “I was on an undercover assignment to find out who was stealing dress designs. It was awful. You should see the conditions those poor girls have to work in.”
“So I’ve heard,” she said. “Well, I expect you’ll be glad that you won’t have to do such unpleasant things any longer. A lady detective, indeed. It’s not natural for a woman.”
“I had to earn my living or starve,” I said. “I imagine that it was much the same way that your family had to survive when they came from Ireland in the famine.” I paused to let it sink in that I was well aware that her family had come over to America with nothing. “It was either that or fish gutting in the Fulton Street Market, or prostitution.” I was attempting to make a joke but her lips were still pursed, so I added, “To be truthful, I’ve enjoyed running my own business, and the excitement.”
“Daniel’s been worried about you, you know. He doesn’t say much, but a mother can tell.”
“I know. But he didn’t have to. I’ve learned to take care of myself pretty well.”
This wasn’t exactly true. There had been times when I was lucky to come out of a situation alive. Those were the times when I had longed for the peace and security that I was now experiencing. Now that I’d had ten days of it, I was ready to go back to my world of excitement and danger. But I’d made Daniel a promise that I’d give up working when we married. I couldn’t go back on that now, could I? My thoughts turned to Daniel and the upcoming wedding and the cold feet returned. Don’t get me wrong, I wanted to marry him. I loved him. I was just scared of becoming a wife, confined to the life that respectable wives led: tea parties, sewing and idle gossip, and children soon enough, knowing the way that Daniel and I made love.
“It’s too bad he can’t join us for Labor Day after all,” I said. “I’m sure you were looking forward to seeing him as much as I was.”
Mrs. Sullivan sighed. “You’ll soon learn that being a policeman’s wife isn’t easy. Meals at all hours, calls in the middle of the night, and sometimes hardly seeing your man for days. And the constant worry when he doesn’t come home on time. I went through it all those years with my husband. My hope for Daniel is that he’ll soon leave the force and go into politics. He has the connections, you know, and I’ve no doubt that Tammany Hall would back him. They’d love to see another Irishman in Washington.”
“But he loves what he does,” I said. “He’s good at it. I wouldn’t want him to give it up because I was worried.”
As I said it the thought crossed my mind that he was making me give up my job for that very reason. Or was it rather that my being a detective would not sit well with his colleagues—even open him up to ridicule?
“Did he tell you what important case he was working on that keeps him in the city?” Mrs. Sullivan asked.
“We made an agreement,” I said. “He doesn’t share his cases with me and I don’t share my cases with him.”
Mrs. Sullivan grunted her disapproval again. I stared out across the back lawn to the row of tall trees that separated this house from its neighbors. In the next backyard someone was mowing the lawn. I heard the click-clack of a mower and the sweet smell of new mown grass wafted over to me. There were roses blooming along the fence and the buzzing of bees mingled with the sound of mowing. Truly it was quite delightful here. I should just let my future mother-in-law’s criticisms wash over me and make the most of this time.
“I can’t blame Daniel for not coming out to see us,” she said. “He has no real reason to make the long, uncomfortable journey now that he doesn’t have to collect the furniture.”
“I offered him some choice pieces of our furniture for your new house,” she said. “But now that you’re apparently going to start married life in that poky little house of yours, I gather there’s no room for extra furniture.”
My saintliness was wearing thinner. “It’s a dear little house. I’m very fond of it. And it’s in a quiet backwater.” I wanted to add that her house, while pleasant enough, was no mansion. Not much bigger than mine, in fact.
“But the neighborhood,” she said. “I know that Daniel wanted you to start married life in a better part of the city, farther uptown.”
“There’s nothing wrong with the neighborhood.” I could hear my voice rising.
“Greenwich Village? My dear, it’s full of immigrants and bohemians, not the sort of people you’ll want your children to mix with.”
“Mrs. Sullivan,” I said, taking a deep breath to steady myself, “don’t tell me that when your own family stepped off the boat they went straight to the Upper East Side and lived in a mansion. They started off with nothing, in the slums. Daniel told me. And yet I’d say he’d turned out well enough. And in case you’ve forgotten—I’m an immigrant. I don’t want to pretend to be something I’m not.”
There was a long, frosty silence during which the lawn mower continued to click away, then she said calmly, “We’d better get back to work if we want these garments to be finished on time. I told you we’re expected at the Misses Tompkins for lunch, didn’t I? And after that I promised Clara Bertram that you’d come and play croquet with them. Clara is another of Daniel’s old friends and she does so want to meet you.”
I’ll bet she does, I thought. So that she can examine the fabric of my dress and find it wanting. I’d already encountered several of Daniel’s friends during this stay. I could see their surprised reaction that Daniel was marrying someone like me when he could have had Arabella Norton and a fortune to go with her.
I picked up the half-sewn white silk petticoat and was about to start stitching when the porch screen door opened and Colleen, the little maid of all work came out. “The post has just come, madam,” she said and handed Mrs. Sullivan several letters. Mrs. Sullivan glanced through them.
“These will be responses to our invitation to the wedding. The Van der Meers,” she said, looking pleased. “Oh, and Alderman Harrison. And there’s one for you, Molly. That’s not Daniel’s handwriting.”
She handed me the letter. I recognized the writing at once. “It’s my neighbor on Patchin Place,” I said, then couldn’t resist adding, “Augusta Walcott, of the Boston Walcotts, you know.”
Mrs. Sullivan looked suitably surprised. “The Boston Walcotts, in Greenwich Village?”
“She’s an aspiring painter. Would you please excuse me if I go and read this?” I didn’t wait for the answer but went down the steps and across the lawn until I was standing in the shade of an elm tree, out of sight of Mrs. Sullivan and the porch swing.
My dear Molly, I read in Gus’s educated, fluid script, I can’t tell you how much we are pining for you. Life seems positively dull without having you around. And New York is beastly hot and uncomfortable, but Sid insists on staying put because of the articles she is writing on the suffrage movement. We imagined you sitting in the leafy shade, drinking iced lemonade and having a lovely time, and we were tempted to hop on the next train and come for a visit, but Sid pointed out that your mother-in-law might not approve of us and she didn’t want us to do anything that might cloud your future relationship. Sid is always so thoughtful, isn’t she?
But then she had an equally splendid idea. Why don’t we give a small party for Molly, she suggested. All those friends who are not being invited to the wedding. Of course we started planning and scheming immediately. Should it be a Japanese theme, or Ancient Greek? Sid suggested an underwater motif and wanted us all to be mermaids, but that was really impractical as we wouldn’t be able to dance with tails on. So we’re still debating the theme but we thought that some time during the Labor Day weekend would work well, if you’ve nothing planned. Do let us know as soon as possible whether this suits you and we’ll go full steam ahead with the plans.
We’ve seen your betrothed from time to time, although I can’t say he has paused to be sociable with us. As you know, he has been having the place completely redecorated. And the other day he stopped by with a load of furniture, presumably from his rooms, since it looked very dour and masculine. We peeked in a couple of times and we must say that it all looks wonderfully brand, spanking new—and the wallpaper remarkably tasteful. I think you’ll be pleased.
We do hope you can come for Labor Day. Sid sends her warmest regards.
Your friends Sid and Gus,
P.S. I almost forgot. A man came to your house yesterday and when nobody answered, he rapped on our door and demanded to know where you were. He said he represented a most important man who had an urgent commission for you and left his card with us. He demanded that you to contact him as soon as possible. We told him we didn’t think you were taking any commissions at the moment but he said he was sure you’d take this one. He was quite insistent. So you might want to come back to the city a day or so before the party, just in case there is a juicy assignment waiting for you. Naturally we’ve said nothing of this to Daniel.
I reread the letter, then folded it. An urgent commission from an important man. I had promised Daniel that I would give up my detective business when I married, but I wasn’t married yet, was I? And if it was a simple, straightforward assignment, it would provide a nice fee to add to my coffers—so that, at the very least, I could go to a department store and buy ready-made undergarments without feeling guilty.
Daniel’s mother looked up as I came up the steps onto the porch. “Good news, I hope?”
“Delightful news, thank you. My friends in the city have planned a pre-wedding celebration for me, to take place next weekend. So I do hope you’ll forgive me if I go back to the city for a few days. I fear I’m more of a hindrance than a help to you in the sewing anyway.”
I thought she looked relieved if anything, but she said stiffly, “This celebration requires you to be away for more than one day, does it?”
“I know these friends,” I said. “Their parties are always elaborate costume affairs, so I’ll need to assemble a suitable costume somehow.”
“A costume affair—that seems an odd sort of wedding party to me.”
“It is Greenwich Village,” I reminded her. “And many of our acquaintances are artists and writers. They enjoy being creative in their celebrations.”
She went back to her sewing, one neat little stitch after the next.
“With your sewing skills, let’s just hope that it’s a Roman toga,” she said at last.
I laughed dutifully, although I couldn’t tell whether she intended to make a joke.
“I’ll be back in good time to help you with the wedding preparations and to do the final fittings on my dress,” I said.
“And I take it you’ll be staying for our luncheon with the Misses Tompkins and croquet with Clara Bertram today?”
“Of course,” I said. “I wouldn’t dream of missing out on luncheon with the Misses Tompkins.”
And this time she looked at me to try and guess whether I was joking.
Copyright © 2011 by Rhys Bowen