|Publisher:||Baker Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||6.40(w) x 8.40(h) x 1.00(d)|
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Chicago, Illinois 1897
I am still in bed, languishing in that lovely state between dreaming and wakefulness, when the note arrives. Our housemaid has brought it to my bedroom on a tray along with tea and toast and a soft- boiled egg. The moment I see whom the letter is from, I am fully awake. My life is about to change. I tear open the envelope and pull out the card.
From: The Pinkerton Detective Agency Agents R. J. Albertson and M. Mitchell
To: Miss Anna Nicholson
Please be advised that we have found information concerning your mother, Christina de Jonge, that may be of interest to you. We await word of a convenient time to call on you to relay our findings.
I toss the covers aside and leap out of bed, causing the maid to step back in surprise. "Is the courier who delivered this note still waiting for my reply?" I ask her. I can't recall the maid's name. She is new and young and very skittish. Mother demands a lot of our servants, and few of them last very long. I have already seen this poor girl in tears.
"I-I'm not sure, Miss Anna. Shall I go and see?" She glances around as if looking for a place to set the tray. The cup rattles against the saucer.
"No, wait a moment, please." I rummage through my desk for stationery and a pen to scribble a reply. I'm certain my social calendar is filled with scheduled events today, but I'm too excited to recall a single one. The Pinkerton detectives have a fine reputation for unearthing secrets from the past, and I have been growing impatient as I've waited for them to report back to me. I scribble a note to Agents Albertson and Mitchell, inviting them to come today at three o'clock, then I fold the note, place it in an envelope, and seal the flap. "Take this down to the courier right away," I tell the maid. I grab the tray from her and shove the envelope into her hand. "Hurry!"
"Yes, Miss Anna."
As soon as she's gone, I remember that I have a luncheon engagement with my fiancé's mother and sister that is certain to drag on until three o'clock. I will simply have to excuse myself early. Mother will be annoyed, but it can't be helped. I have been waiting for weeks for news of my real mama, ever since returning from Michigan in July.
The detectives' report is all I can think about as I sip tea and eat tiny sandwiches at the garden party later that afternoon. as her son's fiancée to some of her longtime friends and their daughters. The fall afternoon is so lovely that the luncheon is held outside in the beautifully kept gardens behind the Wilkinsons' mansion. Tables and chairs dot the grass between the flower beds, and the tables are set with white linen cloths, fine china, and silverware. Maids serve the tea from sterling silver pots, the sandwiches from silver platters. It's a serene setting, with birds twittering and the air perfumed by the last of the summer roses climbing the trellises.
Mother looks as regal as a queen as she chats with William's mother. She is beaming as if she is the bride-to-be instead of me. This marriage will raise her status in Chicago society by several notches. I'm seated at a table a few feet away with William's sister, Jane, his Aunt Augusta, and two cousins. I should be filled with genteel enthusiasm as I listen to them talk about William and share some of their wedding day experiences, but I'm restless. My only role is to look pretty, make polite conversation, and enjoy the luncheon, yet I feel a lingering uneasiness, as if I'm supposed to be doing something else. I have no idea what. But something useful.
By the time dessert is served, I'm tired of smiling. I'm timid by nature and unused to being the center of attention. I can't stop glancing down at the little watch brooch pinned to the bodice of my gown — a present from Mother and Father. Time seems to crawl at a snail's pace. Mother catches me watching the time and discreetly shakes her head, a signal to mind my manners. I never had a problem following all the rules that my social position requires until I spent a week in Michigan with my grandmother Geesje in the summer and saw how liberating a simpler life can be.
Jane, who is five years younger than me, leans close to whisper something. She is slender and dark-haired like William, and her brown eyes sparkle with mischief as she discreetly gestures to a fashionably dressed young woman sitting near the fountain. "Have you met Clarice Beacham yet?" she asks.
"Only briefly. Why?"
"William courted her for some time before he met you. Clarice was furious at being tossed aside for you."
"I'm surprised she came today."
"My mother and her mother are very old friends. It was their idea to pair her with William in the first place, not his."
"I see." Clarice is easily the most beautiful woman at the luncheon, with shining auburn hair pinned up in the latest Gibson girl style. She exudes a self-confidence that I've never had, visible in the way she sits and walks and converses effortlessly with the other women. Yet the word I feel that best describes her is not a kind one: haughty — as if wealth and luxury and privilege are her birthrights. I dare not judge her, though, because I have held the same attitudes for most of my life, even though my position in society comes through adoption, not birth.
"Clarice has been keeping a close eye on you for months," Jane tells me, "waiting to pounce if things between you and William don't work out."
I'm wondering why Jane would confide in me this way. As if reading my thoughts, she adds, "I'm only telling you this so you'll be careful what you say around her. Clarice would do anything to get William back."
I'm unnerved to know that I have a rival, let alone a beautiful, ruthless one. "I see. Thanks for the warning, Jane."
"You're welcome. I like you a lot better than Clarice. I hope we'll become friends."
"I do, too." I reach to give her hand a squeeze. How I have longed for a close friend!
The maids glide around the garden in ruffled aprons, refilling teacups, holding out trays of delicate tea cakes. I glance down to check the time again, and when I look up, Clarice is walking toward me.
"Congratulations on your engagement," she says with a smile. She sits down in an empty chair beside mine as the other guests begin to rise from their places to mingle.
"Thank you, Clarice."
"William's mother tells me you have recently returned to the city after being away for a few weeks this summer."
"Um ... yes." I wonder if Mrs. Wilkinson also told Clarice that it was because William and I briefly ended our engagement before reconciling again. "Mother and I spent some time at a resort in Michigan," I tell her. "It was lovely and relaxing."
"What made you decide to leave Chicago?" It is very brash of her to keep probing for information, and I'm grateful for Jane's warning.
"Chicago can be so hot during the summer months," I say with a little wave of my hand. "Were you able to escape the city at all?"
"I wouldn't want to. There are so many exciting things to do that I would be afraid I would miss something. Besides, if I had a fiancé as handsome as William, I wouldn't leave his side for a single day." I have no reply to that. "Listen, Anna," she says, resting her hand over mine. "We don't know each other very well yet, but I hope we can become friends. My family and William's have been friends for ages, so you and I will be almost like sisters now that you're marrying him. When might you have a free afternoon so you can join me for lunch? We can get to know each other a little better, just the two of us. Please say you'll come."
"That's very kind of you. We'll have to arrange a time very soon." I wonder what she is plotting. I'm relieved when Mother joins us before Clarice pressures me to choose a date. Mother has more experience with scheming women than I do. As she and Clarice talk, my thoughts drift to my meeting with the Pinkerton detectives in another hour, wondering what they might have discovered. Any news about my real mama will be welcome, but I'm also hoping to learn who my biological father is. According to my grandmother, Mama had been madly in love with a man named Jack Newell, and they ran away together the day after a fire destroyed most of Holland, Michigan, including the factory where Jack worked. The two were headed for Chicago and didn't know that a huge fire had also destroyed much of the Windy City on the very same night. I have read firsthand accounts of the Great Chicago Fire and wonder where Mama and Jack would have found work and a place to live after such devastation.
It's half past two when Clarice finally wanders away. I rise and tell Mother I would like to leave. Her serene façade vanishes. "We can't leave now," she whispers. "It would be rude."
"Some of the other ladies are leaving," I say, nodding toward two departing guests.
"But you are the guest of honor!"
"You may stay longer if you'd like, Mother. I'll send the carriage back for you."
The color rises in Mother's cheeks. It's hard to tell if she is furious with me for wanting to leave early or for daring to defy her. Perhaps both. I start to walk away, but she stands and grips my arm, holding it in her firm grasp to keep me from leaving. "What is this all about, Anna? Are you unwell?"
I could lie and pretend to be sick, but it would be wrong. "The detectives Father hired are coming today at three o'clock. They have news about Mama. I need to leave."
I can see she is torn between staying so she won't miss anything and going with me to keep an eye on me. She decides to accompany me, and as we thank our hostess and politely take our leave, I brace myself for the lecture that is certain to come. We climb into our carriage to start for home and she doesn't disappoint me. "When your father and I agreed to help you hire the Pinkerton detectives, we never imagined it would interfere with your life this way."
"I'm sorry. But I forgot all about the luncheon when I told the detectives to come at three o'clock today. Besides, the luncheon was nearly finished anyway."
"That's no excuse. As the guest of honor, you should be among the last to leave, not the first."
"I'm hoping that the detectives have information about who my real father is."
Mother purses her lips as if it will help hold her anger inside. When she finally speaks she sounds calm, but I know she's not. "Isn't it enough to know your mother's story and how she died? You need to leave the rest of it alone, Anna, and get on with your life."
"But I'm curious about my father, too. If he really is Jack Newell, I would like to know what happened to him and why I don't remember him at all."
"You may learn something very unsavory. It's a stone best left unturned."
"I can't leave it. I want to know."
"Listen to me." She grips my arm again and hushes her voice as if she doesn't want anyone to overhear, even though the only person near enough is our driver — and he would never tell family secrets, would he? "It's entirely possible that your parents never married, Anna. If that turns out to be true, we would be obligated to make William and his family aware of it."
"Of course I'll tell William. He's going to be my husband.
He'll want to know who I really am as much as I do."
"That isn't true. You are the only one who is obsessed with this. William and his family would prefer not to know."
I stare at her in surprise. "Did they tell you that? William never mentioned it to me."
"His mother let me know in a very delicate way that they would be happier not to have the past exhumed. Most of Chicago society has no idea you're even adopted, let alone what your background is, because frankly, it's none of their business. William's mother and I both feel that the past should remain buried. As William's wife, you must be above reproach. We cannot allow any unsavory details about your parents to taint your reputation."
"I promise that no one outside our family will ever know what I discover. But I have to keep searching until I learn the truth."
"Once it's out of the box, the truth can rarely be concealed. The harder one tries to hide it, the juicier the gossip becomes. And you also must think of your children. Anything you learn about your past becomes part of their past, too."
"I'm not ashamed of my mother. She died saving me."
"And your adoptive father put himself in danger to rescue you. Don't forget that. You owe him a measure of discretion, too."
I know she's right, but I still can't contain my curiosity. I remain silent for the rest of the drive home, promising myself that I will listen to the detectives' report and let that be the end of it. When we arrive home, a small carriage is parked out front, and our butler tells me that the two Pinkerton agents are waiting in the front parlor. I pluck off my hat as I hurry inside to greet them. After the preliminary niceties, Agent Albertson hands me a typewritten report, and we take our seats on the sofas to settle down to business.
"We found a record of marriage in your mother's name. Christina de Jonge married Jack Newell in October of 1871."
My heart leaps in my chest. "They did get married!" I look up at Mother and can see that she is relieved to learn that my birth was legitimate. I'm relieved, as well. I silently rehearse my real name — Anneke Newell. "Were you able to find any more information about Jack?" I ask.
"We're following up on some possible leads. You told us he was a laborer, so we're searching through membership lists of various trade unions for his name. I'll let you know as soon as we find something."
I look down at the report again. "According to this, they were married two weeks after the Chicago fire," I say. "That's two weeks after running away from home in Michigan."
"Yes. The ceremony was performed by a justice of the peace in the village of Cicero. Since the fire destroyed central Chicago and all of the city records, most legal transactions in the city were disrupted. That's why we decided to comb through the marriage records in neighboring towns, which is where we found it. You told us that Christina and Jack came to Chicago to find work, and there were plenty of construction jobs after the fire, but housing was scarce. You'll see that Christina listed an address in Cicero as their place of residence."
"Did you go to that address? Is the house still there?"
"We did. It's a boardinghouse that has been in operation for some thirty years. We spoke with the landlady, Mrs. Marusak, and from our description, she thinks she may remember your mother."
I leap up from the divan, too excited to remain seated. "I want to talk to her. Can you take me there?"
"Certainly, if you'd like." Agent Albertson rises, as well.
"Anna, dear. Are you forgetting that you have plans this evening?" Mother asks, pretending to be calm. "I'm afraid there won't be enough time for my daughter to travel all the way to Cicero and back with you this afternoon," she explains to the agents.
"How about tomorrow?" I ask.
"That won't be possible, either," Mother says. "Your calendar is quite full, dear, for the remainder of this week."
"But there must be an afternoon when I can get away. Can't we cancel something?" After consulting the calendar that she meticulously keeps, Mother informs me that with our multiple social engagements and two important dress fittings, the earliest opportunity to travel to Cicero will be a week from tomorrow. I don't know how I'll be able to wait that long. I remember my silent vow to abandon this search, but my curiosity outweighs any fear I have about what I might discover about my parents in Cicero.
I show William the typewritten report when we meet for dinner later that evening. "It was such a relief to know that my birth wasn't disgraceful," I tell him. He nods but shows little enthusiasm, briefly scanning the page before folding it in half and laying it aside. We are in the elegant dining room of the private men's club that he and Father belong to, in the only area where women are allowed. The plush surroundings and hushed atmosphere make me feel as though I must whisper.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Legacy of Mercy"
Copyright © 2018 Lynn Austin.
Excerpted by permission of Baker Publishing Group.
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