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Silence Is Golden
A HILDA JOHANSSON MYSTERY
By Jeanne M. Dams
Walker & Company
Copyright © 2002 Jeanne M. Dams.
All rights reserved.
BIG CROWD AT THE CIRCUS
Record Breaking Day For Ringling Brothers Shows
South Bend Tribune, April 28, 1903
Much later, after it was all over, after the fear and the anguish and the horror were past, Hilda was to wonder when and how it began. Had it been when the other boy disappeared, a year ago and more? Perhaps even farther back, when a twisted mind first conceived a dreadful plan?
For her and those she loved, it really began that day in the park ...
"And I'll treat you both! Now, bow's that for a handsome offer?" Patrick gave Hilda his most winning smile, twisting one end of his luxuriant mustache.
Hilda pushed with her toe and set her swing into gentle motion. "I would like that, Patrick," she said mildly, "but Erik"
"I want to go!" Erik jumped from his swing. "Oh, please! I'll be good, I promise. All my life I've wanted to go to the circus!"
His face was full of passionate longing, and Hilda smiled. It was certainly true that her little brother wasn't getting a lot of fun out of life. But as Erik's life compassed only a little more than twelve years, and he had never heard of a circus until his arrival in America five months ago, she was not overly concerned. "I do not mind. You may come if you wish. OnlyMama will not like it."
Erik's face fell. He dug one toe into the ground and scowled. "Mama never lets me do anything. Or anybody else, either. I bet she won't even let you go. Not with Mr. Cavanaugh."
"I will do as I think best," Hilda said, raising her chin. "I am a grown woman, not a naughty little boy. You have given Mama much worry, Erik. You know you have."
"And so have you!" Erik shot back. "She doesn't like you goin' around with a Catholic. It's wicked, she says. She says"
"That," said Patrick, "is enough out: of you, me boy! Now run off and play, and let your sister and me have some peace."
"But I want"
The combined glares of Hilda and Patrick silenced him. Scuffing the grass defiantly with his Sunday shoes, he set off to find more congenial company. He found it almost immediately in a boy Hilda knew slightly, a friend of Erik's who lived near the Johansson family. The two of them capered away, shouting and turning cartwheels. Patrick watched them with amusement.
"He's a pretty good acrobat, that one. Look at that! Flipped right over and landed on his feet. Who is he?"
"His name is Fritz, I think. I cannot remember his last name. He is German. They live just around the corner from my family, on Robertson Street."
"Lookit me! Watch me!" The timeless boy-cries came faintly from a far corner of the park, where Fritz (if that was his name) was walking along the narrow railing at the park's edge, as surefooted as if it were the grass.
Hilda frowned. "He should not do that. The river is just on the other side. If he should fallor if Erik should decide to try"
But Fritz did not fall, nor did he entice Erik to dangerous feats. He jumped down and led Erik on a wild chase through the trees.
Hilda sighed and prodded her swing into motion once more. The grass was damp. Beneath the swings it was sparse, turning to mud in places. April had not been a kind month thus far. With Easter a week past, the weather was still wet and cold. Though the clouds that hovered overhead were not actually producing rain, they obviously intended to do so any minute.
It wasn't the best sort of afternoon for the park, but Hilda and Patrick nearly always went there when they walked out together, and she wasn't free to pick and choose her times of leisure. As live-in housemaid for the Studebaker family at their mansion, Tippecanoe Place, she worked hard from dawn till far past dusk every day except Wednesday; when she had most of the afternoon off, and Sunday; when she was given, at least nominally; the whole day. Church attendance, however, was mandatory. And after church she was expected to eat Sunday dinner with her large family in their small house.
That little ritual had been a pleasure in times past. It was Hilda's one chance in the week to see her family, to speak Swedish, to eat Swedish food, to revive fading memories of her roots. Her older sister, Gudrun, was a good cook, which made it easier to tolerate her tendency to boss Hilda around. And brother Sven and younger sister Freya were both dears, in their very different ways.
But now that Mama and the three youngest siblings had come to live in America ...
"It is good for Erik to run in the park, to have space," said Hilda. "It is too crowded at home now. There are too many of us. On the farm there was one big room, kitchen and parlor combined. We were not pushed together as we are now. The house was old, and it was notnot" She gestured, hunting for the right word.
"Fancy?" Patrick suggested. "Well built?"
Hilda frowned and shook her head. "I do not know the right word. It was built well. My grandfather built it. But it was not a city kind of house. Not an American house. For us it was better. The house was cold in winter, anyway up in the loft where we slept, but there was plenty of wood to burn in the stove, so the kitchen was always warm. And when my father was alive, there was good food. We were happy until he died. Then ..." Her voice trailed off.
Patrick could see in her eyes memories of hard times, times perhaps like those he could remember, just, back in Ireland. They were not happy memories.
"But we're here now, darlin' girl. We're in America, where we have good jobs. We don't have to go hungry anymore."
There had been a time when Hilda would have reproved Patrick for his term of affection. Now that they had admitted their feelings for each other, she let him say what he wanted. She even let him kiss her on rare occasions. This was not such an occasion.
"We are not hungry, no, but there is more in life than food."
"Not when you're starvin', there isn't. It's all you can think about, all you want. I can still remember the pain in my belly, small though I was then."
Hilda touched his hand in sympathy. Never, she knew, never when things were at their worst, had her family suffered as the Irish had. There had always been something for the Johanssons to eat. True, it had never been quite enough, not after her father's death. Tending the farm had been hard without him, and the weather had been bad for several years in a row. But food of a sort there had always been, and if Hilda had grown very tired of potatoes; and beets day in and day out, she had tried not to complain. Mama had worked so hard to keep her seven children healthy. It had seemed ungrateful to complain.
Then the four eldest had left the farm and come to America, and after six long years of toil and scrimping, they had finally been able to bring the rest of the family to South Bend.
"I thought it would be better," she burst out resentfully. "I thought it would be wonderful to have Mama here again, and the little ones. But even with me living at Tippecanoe Place, there are too many in Sven's house, and Mama does not like you, and she tries to tell me what to do, and she is too strict with Eric, and I do not like it!"
Another woman might have wept, but Hilda stamped her foot. The swing bucked wildly.
Patrick didn't laugh. He knew his Hilda and her temper, and in troth, the situation was not a laughing matter. He shook his head. "Erik needs a firm hand. He ought to be goin' to school."
"His English is not yet good enough."
"Hah! It's better than yours," said Patrick bluntly. "Kids that age, they pick it up like breathin'."
"He speaks well, yes. Like an American, almost. But he cannot read English well yet, or write itonly a little."
"I still say he needs school, or somethin' to keep him up to snuff. He's a nice enough kid, but he's spoilin' for trouble, that boy."
"Patrick! He is my favorite. Of all my brothers and sisters, he is the one most like me. He is smart"
"And stubborn," Patrick put in.
"Yes, when he thinks he is right! Like me. And loving. Like me." She gave Patrick a sidelong look. He grinned and aimed a peck at her cheek.
"Anyway," she pursued, dodging away, "Erik maybe needs a little more discipline. Sven works so hard, he does not have time to talk so much to Erik and tell him what is right and what is not. But he does not need to be scolded all the time and treated like a baby. Mama keeps him tied to her apron strings. He is twelve, Patrick, but he has less freedom than when he was five. On the farm he could do as he liked, once his chores were done. Here" She threw up her hands in an exasperated gesture, lost her balance, and nearly fell out of the swing.
Patrick took both her hands and pulled her up. "Here, me girl. That swing's no safe place for you in such a mood. Anyway, it's going to rain. We'd best be heading home. Where's Erik?"
Hilda looked around. Her brother and his friend were nowhere to be seen. She shrugged. "I do not know. He can find his way home. Mama will not like it that I left him, but he must have some freedom."
"Next week when I take him to the circus, he'll have all the freedom he wants," Patrick promised.
"If Mama lets him go," said Hilda darkly.
A week and a day later Hilda and Patrick sat, enthralled, as spectacle succeeded spectacle in the huge Ringling Brothers tent. They sat alone, however. True to Hilda's predictions, Mama had refused to allow Erik to accompany them. "Anyway, Mr. Williams let you come," Patrick remarked, seeing a shadow cross Hilda's face as she watched a young boy perform on the trapeze.
"Almost he did not. He said I could not expect to take time off whenever I wanted it. He said it was not allowed that I leave the house after dark. I told him I had never asked before, and I would give notice if he did not let me go. Ooh! The boy will fall! No, he is all right."
"All part of the act," said Patrick as nonchalantly as if his own heart weren't pounding. "What would you've done if he'd taken you up on it?"
"I knew he would not. Good maids are hard to find, and I am very, very good. Oh, Patrick, look at the baby elephant!"
There were lots of elephants, and performing seals, and horses. One act had fifty-one horses performing together in one ring. "They dance," said Hilda in awe. "They are as good as thewhat did you call it? The people dancing, in that act before?"
"The ballet," said Patrick, pronouncing it more or less like "bullet," "or at least that's what it says here in the program. Meself, I think the horses are better."
Hilda loved it all. Each act was better than the last. The lions and tigers in their cages both terrified and delighted her. "Look," she said, laughing. "It's washing its face, just like the kitchen cat. And the tamer is so handsome, and so brave." The latter remark, an attempt to arouse Patrick's jealousy, fell flat. His attention was on the new antics of the trapeze artists.
After the show, they lingered to watch the performers pack up their wagons. "Stand away, folks," cried the lion tamer. "These boys are hungry, and you look like dinner!" Hilda squealed, and the handier cocked his head in her direction. "Hmm. You look pretty appetizing to me, too, little lady."
Hilda clutched Patrick's arm. He scowled and pulled her away from the lion wagon. "Impudent masher," he muttered, looking back with blood in his eye. "And you thought he was handsome. I ought to"
"Patrick! He is a horrid many She tossed her head. "Do not fight with him; I want to go away from here. Look, there are the trapeze artists. At least that is what their wagon says, but they do not look the same in ordinary clothes."
The wagon, gaily painted with circus scenes and emblazoned with the words "The Stupendous Shaws" in fancy lettering, was as gaudy as one would expect. But the performers, bereft of their tights and spangles, their faces washed clean of paint, were barely recognizable as the high fliers of an hour before. Hilda could see a family resemblance among some of them, evidently mother, father, and children. All looked weary as they packed up their costumes and equipment, paying scant attention to the dawdling onlookers. The father dropped a large, gaily-striped hoop. It rolled to Hilda's feet; she picked it up and handed it back.
"Thank you, young lady," he said with a smile and a bow, and twirled the hoop around his finger for a moment before stowing it away in the wagon.
"Now he," she said approvingly, "is a gentleman."
"With a wife and family, I'll remind you." Patrick was tired and on the verge of becoming cross.
They watched the clowns, looking sad and weary without their costumes and face paint. Hilda had found them rather frightening in performance, with their grotesquely exaggerated features, but now they seemed just ordinary. One of them swore loudly when his horse took a playful nip of his shoulder. Again Patrick pulled Hilda away.
The crowd had thinned out. The roustabouts scarcely bothered to be polite to those who were left, and who were very much in the way. It was time to go home.
It was well after eleven o'clock before Hilda finally fell into bed, sated with both sensation and indigestible food. She nearly choked on trapped yawns at the servants' breakfast table the next morning. Mr. Williams, the butler, was watching her like a hawk, ready to swoop down with reproof if she showed the least sign of an inability to carry out her duties. To spite him, she drove herself and the maids under her supervision at a frenzied pace all day, exhausting herself and them, but unwilling to give the butler any excuse for a lecture. By the end of the day, she was ready to fall into her bed the moment her duties were done. She didn't even take time to read the evening papers.
By Wednesday morning, however, she had fully recovered. She rose at her usual hour of five o'clock and went about her morning chores at an unhurried pace. She was not to have the afternoon off, having traded it for the unheard-of privilege of her evening out. So there was no point in rushing through her work.
She could spare the time for a search through the wastepaper bin. Yesterday's newspapers would be there, and she wanted to read about the circus.
Hilda and Mr. Williams waged a quiet, ongoing war about the newspapers. They were, the butler contended, the sole property of the Studebaker family, to be read first by them and, only later, when they were about to be discarded, by Mr. Williams himself. The female servants were not to read them at all. He did not hold with females getting ideas above their station.
Hilda, of course, ignored the prohibition, but she had to be devious about it. If she could, she read them when they first arrived, about four in the afternoon. She was always careful to refold them exactly as they had been, and to make sure the ink was unsmudged. If the butler was vigilant and brought in the papers as soon as they were delivered, Hilda would make a discreet foray to the trash bin just before she went to bed, taking them upstairs with her to read by the single gaslight in her bedroom.
So now she removed them from the bin in the semi-basement and took them up to the main floor to read at her leisure. Colonel George's office would be the best place. Hidden away in a corner of the house, with four or five broad steps leading up to it, it was as private a room as any in the vast mansion.
The accounts of the circus were most satisfactory Beading about it was, Hilda thought dreamily, almost as good as being there again. Having satisfied herself, she went on to a quick scan of the main front-page stories. Mr. Williams would be making his appearance soon. After he had swept his critical eye over her work, he would give her any special orders for the day. She had time for only a brief perusal. But one of the stories caught her eye. She let out a small gasp and snatched up the paper.
"BOY DISAPPEARS," the Tribune headline read. And underneath, in smaller type, "Parents Say He Went to Circus and Vanished."
Excerpted from Silence Is Golden by Jeanne M. Dams. Copyright © 2002 by Jeanne M. Dams. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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