A twelve-year-old girl searches for answers when she finds an abandoned baby in the aftermath of the San Francisco earthquake of 1906
Clara Curfman is awakened from a recurring swimming dream by her big, furry sheepdog, Humphrey. Suddenly, her bed is moving and the room is shaking from side to side and up and down. The floor starts pitching like a giant ocean wave, and her books dance right off the shelves. As her parents and their neighbors cope with the earthquake's devastating aftereffects, Clara makes a stunning discovery: A baby has been left on the doorstep of her family's boarding house.
Is the abandoned infant a victim of the earthquake—or something more sinister? The only clue to her identity is a silver rattle engraved with the letter H. On a quest to find Baby H's parents, Clara meets a boy named Edgar who has been orphaned by the earthquake. Their search takes them on a winding trail of danger that will test the true limits of Clara's courage.
This ebook includes a historical afterword.
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The Strange Case of Baby H
By Kathryn Reiss
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2010 Kathryn Reiss
All rights reserved.
Clara streaked through the waves like a sleek gray seal. "I'm coming!" she cried to the figure struggling in the water. "Hang on, Old Sock!" She dragged him up onto the sunbaked rocks and pulled herself out after him. She lifted her mouth to breathe in the salty sea air—and got a mouthful of thick fur?
With a start, twelve-year-old Clara Curfman awoke from another swimming dream to find her big sheepdog shoving his furry face into hers. In the next second he had leaped up onto her bed—heedless of Mother's rule against Dogs On Beds—and was burrowing beneath the blankets.
"Botheration!" groaned Clara. "What are you doing, Humphrey?"
Mother would never allow such a thing, but Clara slid over to make room for Humphrey. The dog lay at her side, panting heavily.
Clara closed her eyes. The dream hovered in her mind, but the yowling cats and howling dogs outside her window made sleep impossible. Humphrey pawed the bedclothes. He seemed to be trying to hide. "What's wrong, boy?" Clara hissed, struggling to sit up.
She listened with surprise to Mr. Grant's rooster crowing next door. It's still dark! Clara thought in protest. Don't these silly animals know it's the middle of the night?
But the palest dawn light filtering through the windows illuminated the clock on Clara's dresser: eleven minutes past five. Almost time for the usual six o'clock rising.
The very thought of morning made Clara close her eyes again. Another day of chores, chores, chores—and then more chores. Another day of Mother. Clara wished she could go back to sleep for a million years, but her eyes flew open when her bed lurched like something alive and Humphrey growled.
The room jolted as if shaken by a giant's hand. Humphrey's frantic barking merged with crashes and thuds from all around the house as everything shook violently from side to side and up and down.
Hang on, Old Sock! Her brother's voice rang in Clara's head as she clutched Humphrey in panic. She couldn't think what was happening. She heard church bells clanging wildly, shouting from somewhere very far away—and Mother's shrill voice screaming, "Earthquaaaaaaaake!"
Clara twined her fingers tight in Humphrey's long fur as the floor heaved like rolling ocean waves. She watched in amazed horror as her books jiggled right off the shelves by the bed. They cascaded onto her and Humphrey, sharp corners gouging them through the blankets. Clara tried to jump out of bed—but Humphrey was on top of her, howling. Plaster came raining down on them from the ceiling, and in some part of her mind Clara knew she must take cover-perhaps under the bed? But she just couldn't move.
The shaking and heaving went on and on, the bed cresting the waves. And then it started dancing right across the sunporch floor with Clara a frozen passenger, unable to stop it. The bed smashed into the far wall. Window glass shattered over the foot of the iron bedstead, and puffs of plaster flew like sharp grains of sand into Clara's face.
Then—for one long moment—all was silent.
In the silence Clara thought dizzily: I liked the swimming dream better but Humphrey licked her face and she knew this chaos was no dream. As she brought her hands to her face and wiped off the gritty plaster dust, she heard her mother's voice crying her name.
"Clara! My Clara!"
Clara struggled out of her cocoon of covers, shoving Humphrey onto the floor. "Mother!" She jumped down from her bed and felt something sharp stab her heel. "Ow!"
Mother was a dim figure in the doorway, her long brown hair out of its usual tidy bun and coated with white dust. "Oh, my heavens, take care, child! Watch for the broken glass, darling—"
She called me darling! Even through her fear, Clara felt astonished at Mother's endearment. Mother usually had nothing but critical remarks for Clara.
"Hurry, hurry!" Mother clutched Clara's arm as Clara bent to ease the sliver of glass from her foot. "We must hurry outside. There may be more in store—oh, my land, the house could crumble around our heads and bury us all alive!"
Mother led the way from the sunporch, her tall, thin figure whisking around the corner as Clara limped along more slowly, her heel throbbing with pain. I'm probably leaving bloody footprints on the carpet runner, she thought. Mother will have a dozen fits They hurried down the long staircase to the front door. Clara gasped as they passed the parlor. It looked as if a storm had swept through, tossing furnishings about like loose pages of newspaper on the street. The mirror over the mantle had shattered, and so had the clock. Shards of silvered glass lay on the mahogany bench.
The lodgers appeared in the front hallway in their nightshirts, looking like ghosts. Old Mr. Granger had on a nightcap—the ghost of Wee Willy Winky, Clara thought wildly. She felt dizzy and light-headed as the nervous lodgers gathered around her. Mother shooed everyone toward the front door.
"Where is Father?" Clara demanded. It should be Father in command, not Mother. In her mind's eye, she saw how he would leap over the wreckage and lead the way out of the house with old Mr. Granger slung over his shoulder and one of the ladies under each arm But that was impossible now.
"Mind the glass," Mother warned Miss Abigail Chandler, the young piano teacher who now slept in Clara's old bedroom. "Clara! Do hurry!"
"Where is Father?" Clara grabbed Mother's arm.
"I'll come back for him once I get you all safely outdoors."
"I'll get him myself!" cried Clara, and she turned and hobbled, heel throbbing, through the dining room, where broken china littered the floor, toward the small study where her parents had been sleeping.
"No, Clara! You must leave the house at once!" shouted Mother. But Clara ran faster.
She found Father sitting on the edge of his bed, clutching the iron bedpost. He was trying to pull himself up to a standing position. "My Clara," he spoke quietly when he saw her in the doorway. "I trust you are unhurt?"
She limped over to him. "Yes, Father." She could hear her own heartbeat pumping in her head. The noise felt like a drumbeat to get them marching: Get out quickly! Get out of the house!
"But you're bleeding, my girl."
"I stepped on glass, that's all," she replied, trying to speak just as calmly as he did. "Hurry, Father. Mother says we must get out into the yard before—" She broke off as another jolt shook the house. Father fell back onto the bed. Clara grabbed hold of the dresser and reached out to intercept the wicker wheelchair as it careened toward them from the far side of the room.
The house trembled as if shaken by the scruff of its neck. Then it dropped—down, down— and Clara's stomach lurched down with it. More plaster sifted around them, covering their identical auburn heads like snow and frosting Father's beard. Clara shook back her tangled, waist-long hair.
"Snow in San Francisco," grunted Father.
"Is it over now?" whispered Clara. Then they heard Mother shouting for them, her voice rising hysterically. Clara grabbed the wheelchair and pulled it over to the bedside. Father eased himself into the seat, and she took hold of the wooden handles.
They hastened into the back hallway. Out on the stoop, Clara was relieved to see that the wooden ramp for Father's wheelchair was intact. Clara blinked in the half-light and sucked in a deep breath of early-morning air as she and her father reached the grass. Mr. Hiram Stokes, a middle-aged office clerk, came running around the house from the front and took charge of the wheelchair; Mother was right behind him, and she wrapped her shawl around Clara's shoulders. The other lodgers straggled after Mother into the small backyard. Humphrey pressed his wet nose into Clara's hand as she gazed at the unusual sight of the lodgers in their nightclothes and curling rags, nightcaps and bare feet. She stroked Humphrey's head.
"You knew it was coming, didn't you, boy? That's what all your fussing was about. Somehow you knew."
Humphrey thumped his tail, and Clara's shuddering heart slowed to nearly normal. She looked around at the twisted iron fence, the broken glass, the mess. But at least her family and all the lodgers were out of the house unhurt—the only injury was Clara's foot, and that was a trifling matter compared to what could have happened—and the house still stood whole, except for the windows.
Thanks be to God—they were safe!
No sooner had Clara thought this than Humphrey pressed against her side, whining, and the ground beneath their feet tossed them forward. Clara landed on her knees, wincing. She gripped the arm of Father's wheelchair with both hands to pull herself up again.
"Lord save us!"
From all around the neighborhood came the sounds of people shouting, someone's high-pitched screaming, thudding bricks, and cracking boards. The Curfman family and their five lodgers clustered together. Safety in numbers, Clara thought, pressing against Mother. Geoffrey Midgard wrapped his burly arms around Miss Chandler and Miss Peggy DuBois, the violin teacher. Hiram Stokes gripped old Mr. Granger's shoulder. Father's head was bowed as he sat in his wicker chair. It looked to Clara as if Father were praying.
But of course Father never prayed anymore.
Clara's heart was thumping wildly again, and the glimmer of safety she'd felt only moments ago was gone now. Mother walked out to the street, calling to neighbors, asking if anyone needed help. The closely spaced houses along Clara's street were still standing, but Clara saw that their own house's chimneys and those of the house next door had collapsed into piles of brick. Jagged shimmers of glass littered the yard near the house. The Curfmans' house seemed otherwise intact, but how could they ever be sure it would be safe to go inside again? Where would they ever be safe if even the earth they stood upon couldn't be trusted?
In the distance they heard the clang of alarm bells, and Father lifted his bowed head. "There's fire," he pronounced in his gravelly voice.
Now Clara could see plumes of smoke rising into the dawn sky. Fire, she knew, could sweep a city. Her whole world was falling to pieces, and she reached down to Humphrey for comfort. He was trembling.
Nobody was safe, she realized. Nobody, and nowhere. Her eyes stung with unshed tears and smoke. Her heel throbbed. And miles beneath her feet, the earth started rumbling again.CHAPTER 2
The World Turned Upside Down
Clara braced herself, arms around Humphrey, until the trembling stopped.
"More and more quakes!" Miss DuBois moaned. "I can't bear it!"
"We're all right," Miss Chandler comforted her. "Everything will be all right."
Clara shivered in the early-morning air. The dawn sky was striped now with columns of smoke. Miss Chandler was trying to be kind and brave, but everything most certainly was not going to be all right. We could so easily have been killed, Clara thought. We weren't, but surely others were She breathed in the sooty smell of burning. Or will be
The clang of alarm bells in the distance made Clara wince. Mother beckoned to her. "People will be homeless," Mother said in a dazed voice. "Or hurt. I need you to help me make ready for them."
"But where will we put people?" asked Clara. "We're not a hospital!"
"We are uninjured," said Mother more firmly. "We seem to have escaped the worst, and so of course we will help others as we can."
"Fire's going to spread fast," Father intoned from his wheelchair. "If the wind picks up, we may not remain so fortunate."
"There you go," snapped Mother. "Still the sea captain, are you? Reading the winds?" She turned away, linking her arm through Clara's. "Let's find something to bandage up your foot, dear, and then you shall be my chief helper."
Mother climbed up the ramp into the house and Clara followed morosely. San Francisco might burn to the ground, but still Mother would find chores for Clara to do. The whole state of California might be shaken off the map, but chores would never perish. Clara looked around the wreckage of their kitchen and sighed. Broken crockery lay on the floor. Tins of flour, sugar, and salt had tipped off the counter, their contents muddied on the floor by spilled coffee beans and oil.
"There's no water," Mother announced, trying the taps at the iron sink. "We'll swab you with vinegar, Clara. Come here."
Clara bit her lip at the sting as Mother cleaned her heel. Then Mother ripped a strip off a clean dishtowel to wrap tightly around the injured foot. "Better now?"
Mother reached for the broom that had fallen under the table. "Now you can start sweeping up in here while I go find your shoes and a dress. And a ribbon to tie back your hair " Mother turned to leave, muttering under her breath. "And we'll get a fire going in the stove. People are going to need breakfast after this shock."
Clara gripped the broom handle. She could see she'd be trapped cleaning all day. But what about Emmeline's birthday party tomorrow? It had been so hard to get Mother's permission to go to the party, and so unfair if the quake should ruin everything!
Since turning their home into a boardinghouse, Mother had kept Clara so busy that there was rarely ever time for fun. No afternoons with Emmeline, Clara's dearest friend. No time to visit the library as Clara used to do every week. And certainly no time for swimming Certainly not swimming. Never again.
Since the accident, there was little money. Father could no longer work, and the lodgers' fees went for groceries and other necessities. Father and Mother had once talked eagerly about college educations for their children, and going to college was one of Clara's fondest dreams, though Gideon had said he'd rather be a steamship pilot and didn't need a college degree. But now college was not an option for Gideon and was unaffordable, anyway, for Clara. "Out of the question," Mother said.
Since the accident, Mother always said no. Anything Clara wanted to do was either dangerous or frivolous. Mother was so unreasonable! And Father—since the accident— wouldn't even listen to Clara's side. "Mother knows best," Father always mumbled when Clara turned to him. Then Mother would hasten Clara onto a new chore, or one of the lodgers would ask her to do some mending. Lodgers were nearly as bothersome as parents.
It wasn't that Clara actively disliked the lodgers—not exactly. Mr. Midgard and Mr. Stokes were passably pleasant; the two music teachers were even friendly. Old Mr. Granger stayed in his room a good deal of the time. But she had found sharing her house these past two years quite disagreeable. Their pretty yellow and white house was meant to be a family home, she felt—not a hotel. It felt too small with so many people living in it. The dining room, where Clara served every meal, felt especially cramped with five extra people around the table. One chair was always empty, of course.
What would Gideon be doing if he were here? Clara wondered as she started sweeping the crockery into a pile. Her brother would probably be hurrying around the neighborhood, checking on the safety of their neighbors. Clara decided she would go over to Emmeline's house. No matter that there could be no party; she would still take Emmeline her birthday present. She knew Emmeline would love the little velvet pocketbook Clara had sewn herself.
"When you finish in here," said Mother, coming back into the kitchen with Clara's clothes, "you can start in the dining room. All that china—smashed! Such a waste—" She broke off with a gasp as a volley of explosions boomed in the distance and the floor shook. Hiram Stokes burst through the swinging kitchen door.
"Stop, Mrs. Curfman! Don't light a fire in the stove!" he yelled.
"Mr. Stokes!" cried Mother.
"The stove, ma'am—have you lit it?"
"No," replied Mother. "I haven't found anything to cook yet—but why?"
He ushered Mother and Clara down the ramp to where Father sat in his wheelchair. Clara's heel throbbed under its bandage. All the lodgers were talking in worried voices, and Miss DuBois was sobbing.
"Gas lines are exploding," Father spoke up into the clamor. "Fire's spreading fast. The whole city could go." He wheeled his chair over to Mother. "You mustn't light the lamps or cook anything in the house, Alice, till the gas lines are repaired. Just a spark—and the next explosion you hear could be us."
Clara looked at Father with wide eyes. It was so unlike him these days to speak with authority. He sounded almost like the old Father—the Father before guilt silenced him. Mother also seemed surprised. She regarded him stonily for a long moment.
"Mr. Curfman is right, ma'am," interjected Hiram Stokes. "I venture to say we'll need permission from the fire marshal before we dare cook indoors."
Mother nodded slowly. "I see," she said. "But then how shall we cook for ourselves? Whatever shall we do?" Her voice rose. "The pantry is a shambles and there's glass everywhere, and what are we to eat?"
Excerpted from The Strange Case of Baby H by Kathryn Reiss. Copyright © 2010 Kathryn Reiss. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
ContentsChapter 1 Earthquake!,
Chapter 2 The World Turned Upside Down,
Chapter 3 Blessing in Disguise,
Chapter 4 Pieces of a Puzzle,
Chapter 5 An Afternoon Walk,
Chapter 6 Noises in the Night,
Chapter 7 Tent Town Turmoil,
Chapter 8 A Mysterious Message,
Chapter 9 Nobody's Baby,
Chapter 10 The Plot,
Chapter 11 Kidnapped!,
Chapter 12 On the Rocks,
Chapter 13 Showdown at Cliff House,
Chapter 14 Peril at Sea,
Chapter 15 Out of the Ruins,
Going Back in Time,
About the Author,