It's 1929, and twelve-year-old Martha has no choice but to work as a maid in the New York City mansion of the wealthy Sewell family. But, despite the Gatsby-like parties and trimmings of success, she suspects something might be deeply wrong in the household—specifically with Rose Sewell, the formerly vivacious lady of the house who now refuses to leave her room. The other servants say Rose is crazy, but scrappy, strong-willed Martha thinks there’s more to the story—and that the paintings in the Sewell’s gallery contain a hidden message detailing the truth. But in a house filled with secrets, nothing is quite what it seems, and no one is who they say. Can Martha follow the clues, decipher the code, and solve the mystery of what’s really going on with Rose Sewell?
Inspired by true events described in a fascinating author’s note, The Gallery is a 1920s caper told with humor and spunk that readers today will love.
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I learned early that if you ask an adult for the truth, usually you get a story.
Take the story of my birth. My dad said that Ma labored brave and hard all night with me all topsy-turvy in her belly—never leading with my head, sure, nothing’s changed, he’d say—and that as I finally made my way into the world, the dawn broke and light streamed in through the window, sunbeams warming up both sets of cheeks. And the doctor said I was the most beautiful baby he’d ever delivered, and I should be named Aurora for the goddess of the dawn, and Daddo still wishes that’s what they’d named me.
My ma said that’s malarkey, that I was born in the unnaturally hot blaze of a May afternoon, with a single nurse and not a doctor to be found for the likes of a poor mick like her, and how would Daddo know anything about it when he was at the saloon the whole time? And my name was always going to be Martha, for my great-aunt Martha who paid my ma’s passage over from Ireland when she was a girl.
Which one is true? Maybe both, probably neither.
So this time, I’m telling the story.
I mean, the truth.
Late September in Brooklyn can be delightful, with wisps of fall in the air, or it can be as hot and muggy as August.
That was the kind of day it was when I sat in catechism class, trying not to let Sister Ignatius see me scratching my sweaty behind under my regulation wool tights. I had an idea that I might sneak out and walk to the elevated train. I’d be at Coney Island before French class even started, to la diablo with Mademoiselle Flanagan.
I figured I could fake lady complaints and ask for a pass to the nurse. Flanagan would think I was at the nurse’s office, and the other girls would tell our last period calisthenics teacher I was excused from exercises. As a plan, it couldn’t fail.
“Martha O’Doyle, I asked you a question.”
“May I go to the nurse, Sister?” I doubled over my desk. “It’s my time.”
“Well, how apropos, as we were just talking about the Curse of Eve. And wasn’t it the curse last week when I asked you to recite the Second Lesson on God and His Perfections? And the week before that when it was your turn to clap the erasers?”
I groaned louder and clutched my stomach.
“Or could this be your punishment for ignoring your studies last night?”
I’d meant to memorize the Fifth Lesson after I fed, bathed, and tucked my little brothers into their prayed-over bedsides. But I’d heard on the way home that Declan Leary bet Jimmy Ratchett that he could pull his dad’s Ford around the block with his teeth. (He couldn’t.) So after the show, the boys and I wheedled beer-splashed peanuts off of Dom Donovan’s speakeasy and hosed off under a fire hydrant. By the time Ma got home from her job in Manhattan, all she saw was a clean kitchen and wet heads on the pillow.
So, no, there’d been no time to weigh the sins of Eve.
“So I will ask you again, Miss O’Doyle: How was Eve tempted to sin? Speak from personal experience if you can’t remember the details.”
The other girls giggled, damn them.
“Erm . . . a snake. No, a serpent.”
“Yes, Eve was tempted into sin by the Devil, who came in the form of a snake and persuaded her to break God’s command. And that command was?”
“To eat . . . I mean, not to eat the apple.”
“The fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. And which were the chief causes that led Eve into sin?”
Now my stomach really did churn. Before bed I’d flicked through an issue of Dime Detective, not the Bible. So I casted around for words left over from Father Quinlan’s homilies. Fruit. Sin. Naked. Shame. Knowledge.
“What about knowledge?”
“She—Eve—wanted to know. To know what God knew. What he forbade her from knowing.”
“Yes, this was the primary sin: She admired what was forbidden instead of shunning it. And the other—”
“Hold a tick,” I heard myself saying.
“What did you just say, Miss O’Doyle?”
“I mean, just a minute. Why was Eve punished for knowledge? Ain’t—sorry, Sister—isn’t that what we’re all sent here to do? Learn things?”
“Just like our spiritual parents, Adam and Eve,you are here to learn the things God deemed fit and right to learn.”
“And how are you supposed to know that something’s not fit and right until you, well, know it already? That’s a bit of a barn door behind the horse. It just seems to me Eve got a bum rap is all. Whoever wrote this thing—”
“This thing! Is that how you refer to the living Word of Our Lord?”
“The Bible, I mean. Whoever wrote it sort of put it all on Eve. Who can blame her for wanting to know some big secret like that? And why does God point it out so much and then forbid it? I know that if Ma tells my little brothers, ‘Don’t go eating the pie I just made,’ I’ll find their fingers in it as soon as her back is turned. Better to just hide it under the bed and let them wonder why the place smells of cherries.”
“Martha Doyle, I warn you to stop talking this instant.”
Here’s the thing. Once I set to wondering something, my mind skips straight ahead. Like my brothers running into traffic.
“And I don’t see how Adam is some great hero in this story. It’s not like he took too much convincing to do the same thing Eve had the guts to do first.14Why’d Eve get the curse? Why can’t boys spend a week out of every month sitting on a rag bundle like the rest of us?”
As I paused to contemplate Declan Leary and his gang complaining of cramps, I caught sight of Sister Ignatius’s face. It resembled a mushroom I once saw at a Chinatown market: squat, purple, and bloated.
And I knew that, just like Eve, my wonderings had gotten me expelled from what would—in retrospect—seem like Paradise.
“You think your schooling is some grand joke? Well, missy, you’re about to get a taste of the life of labor. You’ll see what I’ve been warning you about.”
My ma’s nasal Irish tones carried over the clacking of the elevated train. She lectured her way over the Manhattan Bridge, but I let my attention wander out the train window, to the boats in the harbor, lit up by the early morning sun, and Lady Liberty waving us over to the Manhattan side.
“Sit down properly, and stop your gawking out the window. Dear me.” Ma shifted her address to the more general public as she waved away a gust of dust. A gentleman next to us rushed to close her window. Ma had that effect on people. She gave him a nod and resettled her hat. “I’ve arranged a position under Mon-soor Lerblanc, the cook. Lucky you we binned a kitchen maid this week. Let’s see how a year washing pots and chopping onions compares to a bit of study.”
Sister Ignatius had told my mother enough was enough, probably with some Latin thrown in, and that I was a bad influence on my fellow pupils at the Blessed Name of Our Holy Mother parish school. Ma, no less formidable a force, was able to negotiate my expulsion down to a year’s withdrawal, with a conditional seat the following fall, assuming I’d learned my lesson.
What lesson, my mother was happy to spell out in vivid detail. My school uniform was handed in, and the evening care and keeping of the twins was entrusted to our downstairs lodger, Mrs. Annunziata, for a reduction in rent and all the cheeks she could pinch. I would be going to work with my mother at the Fifth Avenue mansion where she was the head housekeeper.
My ma’s job was a good one, all said. She’d gone to work there when my dad returned to the road. Daddo was a vaudeville star, performing his act around the country, selling out houses to the rafters. But due to shifty bookers and managers, he was always chasing his pay, and it fell on Ma to make ends meet.
With her extra wages, my ma had managed to get us a tidy house in Brooklyn with room for a lodger. And ever since the mansion’s butler left, my ma had been in charge of the whole staff, even the footmen, which was quite the accomplishment back then. But as her employer said, “Why not? It’s running a house, not running for president.”
Her employer was Mr. J. Archer Sewell, a big-shot type who owned a newspaper. My mother’s face always lit up when she described him to me.
“A true gentleman, Mr. Sewell is. Generous not just to me, but to all the staff. At Christmas, all the housemaids were given hair combs with real crystals, and the footmen got silk suspenders. And a ham. All paid for out of Mr. Sewell’s pocket.”
I couldn’t imagine some ham and fripperies made much of a dent in a millionaire’s pocket, but Ma had momentarily forgotten my shortcomings, so I held my tongue.
“How lucky that you were born in America! Back when I worked at a grand house in Ireland, the maids were expected to turn their faces to the wall when the employer walked by! There’s a fine how-de-do. But not Mr. Sewell. We’re all ‘part of the team,’ he says, from the lowest scullery maid all the way up to the top.” She smiled; the top was her.
“Sounds like quite a large staff for a bachelor. What’s he need all those maids for?”
Ma sniffed. “One of the largest houses on the avenue requires a full staff, and as it is, we are quite short-handed. Just two housemaids to clean a ballroom, dining room, art gallery, not to mention all the bedrooms. And a footman with nothing to do but open the door now and then.” She tsked her tongue, for Ma hated nothing more than idleness.
I was just about to ask after my duties in the kitchen when she spoke again. “He’s not a bachelor, exactly.”
“Mr. Sewell, of course. He has a wife. Quite ill, though.”
“What’s wrong with her? She got gout?”
That was the only rich people’s disease I could think of.
“Nothing with her body. It’s her mind. She’s . . .”
Ma looked down her nose at me. “An invalid. A nervous type. She has strange fears and reactions to things. She doesn’t leave her rooms.”
“In a few years, I believe.”
“A few years!”
“Shhhhhh!” Ma’s eyes darted around the train car, but the commuters were mostly snoring or absorbed in the morning headlines. “The most important thing a servant brings to a job is—”
“I know, the apron.”
I held mine up. “I went back for it, remember?”
“You must do something about this habit of interrupting. I was going to say: discretion. Mr. Sewell depends on us to attend to Mrs. Sewell, to keep her calm and comfortable, and above all to keep her out of trouble. And the papers, for that matter.”
“I don’t see how anyone could make the papers if they never leave the house.”
Ma chuckled. Chuckled, mind you. At home she was tired and irritable, put out over an upset water jug or the twins’ boots in the doorway. But when she talked about this other house, this other family, she was—well, different. Assured. Animated. Even happy.
“Miss Rose—I mean, Mrs. Sewell—used to be quite the scandal maker. I remember one time—”
“Hold the phone, did you know her then?”
“You may say ‘I beg your pardon,’ and before I rose to housekeeper, I was her lady’s maid, back when she was Rose Pritchard. Miss Rose was what they call ‘new money,’ or her father was, at least. A fortune dug out of the West Virginia coal mines and built into a railroad. Mr. Pritchard used that money to move to New York, buy their place in society: all the best schools, the big house, the right parties. Every privilege in the world, and Rose didn’t give two figs for any of it. She was always looking for trouble—and finding it, I might add.” And Ma chuckled that chuckle again.
“This Rose sounds like a spoiled brat,” I mumbled.
I thought Ma would jump to her charge’s defense, but instead she seemed to weigh my comment. “She was, somewhat. They were the sort of shenanigans you’d see from the girls on the lane, sneaking out to nightclubs and such. But it was more than that. It was like she was trying to prove something to her father. There he’d gone to all that time and money to give her the place in society he’d never had. But all she wanted was to prove she could make herself from nothing, like him.
“Like the time she told us she was doing charity work at one of the settlements downtown, when really she was working in a sweatshop, learning to sew neckties. ‘Learning the business from the ground up,’ she said, before her father put a stop to it. Then she ran off to Paris, living with unsavory types, buying their pictures; she swore they were20worth something. And oh!” Ma laughed again. “The capers! Like the time she dressed like a gypsy woman and stood outside begging money off her father’s dinner guests. By the time dessert had been cleared, she burst in, claiming she’d turned the money three times over at the track. This, at a time when her father’s company was failing its investors. Oh, Mr. Pritchard was furious!”
“So, what happened?”
“What happens to most girls, same as me. She got married. She settled, eventually. And then—”
Her smile faded, and her face sank back into the lines I knew so well. “It all seemed harmless, back then.”
Then the train went dark, plunging underground as we reached the Manhattan side of the river.
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