Which wife holds the darker secret?
San Francisco, 1906. Violet is one of three people grateful for the destruction of the big earthquake. It leaves her and her two best friends unexpectedly wealthyif the secret that binds them together stays buried beneath the rubble. Fearing discovery, the women strike out on their own, and orphaned, wallflower Violet reinvents herself.
When a whirlwind romance with the city's most eligible widower, Harry Carlyle, lands her in a luxurious mansion as the second Mrs. Carlyle, it seems like her dreams of happiness and love have come true. But all is not right in the Carlyle home, and Violet soon finds herself trapped by the lingering specter of the first Mrs. Carlyle, and by the inescapable secrets of her own violent history.
|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||6.00(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.70(d)|
About the Author
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If you asked me a few months ago, do I believe in ghosts, I would have given one of those pragmatic, empirical answers that most people provide when pressed. I might not have said no, perhaps, but neither would I have said yes.
All these new doctors – the ones who specialize in the psyche and who administer to the mind – insist there can be no such thing; they are figments of an overactive imagination. After all, women see them three times more often than men do. Proof that so-called “ghosts” are nothing more than flights of fancy – because women are hysterics, of course.
Spiritualists say differently. And while I’m not a worldly girl by any means, I’ve heard stories about the séances that have grown so popular among the fashionable set. In velvet-curtained parlors all over the city, newfangled electric lights are snapped off, candles are lit, and men and women sit around a table, begging the spirits to knock once for “yes,” and twice for “no.” It is interesting to note, in most of these cases, that the spirits are more communicative when a bit of coin changes hands.
At St. Hilda’s Home for Girls, they taught us about the Holy Ghost, but nothing about the spectral kind. I remember, though, once asking Sister Maggie if she believed in ghosts – if she believed they could be real. I can’t recall exactly why I was asking. Perhaps, as an orphan, I hoped to someday communicate with the parents I’d known too briefly. Or, perhaps I hoped there might be something other than myself to blame for the episodes of misbehavior I got up to.
Sister Maggie didn’t chastise me for asking such a blasphemous question (others might have given me lashes), nor did she insist that the existence of ghosts was impossible. Instead, she simply said: There are those who believe spirits return to the earth because they cannot rest; they have not finished with their earthly business. Others will tell you that ghosts are a living mind acting out its troubles. Either way, Violet, can’t we find it within ourselves to pity the haunted?
Years later, I’ve come to admire the ambiguity of her reply. Spirits that cannot rest. A living mind acting out its troubles. Sister Maggie didn’t see the need to pick one, because one doesn’t rule the other out. I’ve come to understand that “ambiguity” can likewise describe a simple sentence, pared down to its smaller parts, when you can’t decide which is the adjective that ought to come first, and which is the defining noun. For instance: A murderous accident. An accidental murder.
Come to think, if you asked me a few months ago, do I believe in ghosts, I would have more likely said no than yes. I’m fairly certain of it.
I was not haunted then.
Before the great earthquake of 1906, I was not haunted, but it would be inaccurate to say my mind was entirely at peace.
From the time I was a small child, I’d suffered from what the sisters called “spells” – strange, trancelike episodes of which I have no memory. I’d be found, say, with a broken toy, but no understanding of how I’d broken it. I was raised to see these spells as an undesirable flaw in my person – my curse, really.
In fact, I have always had reason to believe that my spells had something to do with my winding up in an orphanage. Most of the other girls had arrived at St. Hilda’s Home For Girls by the traditional route – that is: As infants, by way of a basket left outside the main gate. But I was seven when I was brought to St. Hilda’s. I still have memories of a house. Richly-colored rugs. A chest full of toys. A fireplace and a room filled with books. I must have been around six when my mother and father died. I suffered a terrible spell around the same time, and in consequence, did not learn the particulars. The most I have been told since was that they took sick, and that there was simply nothing for it.
An aunt with three children of her own took me in for a short time, but I’m told that when my spells began to take the form of hysterical, violent crying her nerves were stretched to the limit. My aunt dealt with me as best she could – mostly, by putting a drop or two of laudanum in a glass of milk and ordering me to drink it down.
She kept me in her care for just shy of a year, at which point she had a change of heart about her duty – or so I assume, because she brought me to St. Hilda’s and left me, with stunning detachment, in the care of the nuns who greeted us at the gate. I was confused when we first arrived. My aunt bade me stand a few paces behind her and whispered something to them I couldn’t hear, until her voice rose a little as she went on.
Surely you understand. I can’t have that kind of wickedness in my house. She’s beyond my help!
The nuns bobbed their heads. I was admitted without further interrogation. I never saw my aunt again. It was then that I realized most of life is divided up into a series of Befores and Afters:
Before my mother and father died, and after.
Before my aunt brought me to the orphanage, and after.
Before I made friends with Cora and Flossie, and after.
Before the orphanage caught fire and burned to the ground, and after.
Each event marked a sea-change, and divided my life with a sense of permanence. There was no going back, no reconciling the dichotomy.
Even now, this feels true, for most San Franciscans will tell you there are two cities: The one that existed before the earthquake, and the one that was rebuilt after.
What the ‘quake itself did not topple in 1906, the fires razed. Afterwards, the world was hungry for modernization, and eventually, the “new” San Francisco boasted wide streets thronged with automobiles and tourists. The steel blue waters of the bay began to buzz with pleasure cruises. Modern department stores sprang up in Union Square, their shiny display windows winking in the sun.
But the San Francisco that existed before the earthquake was a piece of the Old West, a place that had been slapped together hastily to cater to the needs of the ‘49ers.
Nowhere was this truer than in the infamous neighborhood nicknamed “the Barbary Coast,” where the sidewalks stank of piss and ale. Even as civilization tried to nudge its way in, the neighborhood still hosted the occasional barbaric shoot-out. Horses nickered impatiently, tied up outside the area's many saloons. Ragtime and sawdust spilled out of every open doorway. The streets were narrow alleyways, frequented by sailors and prostitutes. It was a place where a man might still be “Shanghai’ed” – kidnapped after falling into a whiskey-induced stupor, only to wake up aboard a ship bound for the Orient and forced into work. Even the fog that rolled into the city during the late afternoons moved as though on the prowl.
During our days at the orphanage, Cora, Flossie, and I had only glimpsed the streets of the Barbary Coast a handful of times. I suppose in our initial impressions we were rather blind to the neighborhood’s more unsavory characteristics. We did not notice the stench; we did not observe the hollow, opium-addled gazes of the men and women who walked the streets. Instead, to us, it felt as though the rebellious spirit of the Wild West was still alive, and to our young, foolish eyes, the Barbary Coast appeared an exciting, merry place.
We observed what naïve girls do: Cora took special note of the colorful, flashy dresses worn by the dancehall girls. Flossie noticed that these girls often jingled with coins. As for me, I noted their laughter, which seemed loud and constant. Surely, people who laughed like that were having a gay time.
When we run away, Cora mused. That’s where we’ll go. We’ll wear bright dresses and dance, and no one will order us about, ever again.
Cora hated life at the orphanage. Like all wrongfully imprisoned heroes, she insisted her presence there was a mistake – she ought have been born to royalty, or, at the very least, a great robber baron. Of course, the way most people reacted to Cora’s scarlet hair and striking beauty did not help to disabuse her of this notion. She took to flouting the sisters’ rules, and obsessively plotting her escape. As Flossie and I were her closest friends, she planned for all three of us to run away together.
Cora was full of ambitious dreams, but if there was anyone who might actually see one of Cora’s plans to fruition, it was Flossie; she had a knack for shrewd planning. Flossie was slim, narrow-hipped, and as straight as an arrow. She had lank blonde hair the color of pale straw, a long neck, and very large, very round blue eyes that seemed to take you in one feature at a time, as a bird might. Whenever her eyes lit up in that birdlike way, you could be sure she was making careful calculations.
But, as it turned out, it didn’t take much plotting for us to run away. When St. Hilda’s mysteriously caught fire, we were presented with a natural opportunity. I can still recall those first days roaming the streets of the Barbary Coast; it was then that we first glimpsed the neighborhood’s rougher side. It was like seeing behind the curtain at a magic show. The atmosphere of merriment that had so charmed us before was laced with dark frenzy, and sometime between night and morning, the sounds of laughter too often turned to the screams of violent argument. I found myself newly intimidated. Flossie appeared unsurprised, but leery. Only Cora remained doggedly optimistic.
“It’s only because we’re on the streets all night,” she insisted. “I’m sure anywhere you go, four o’clock in the morning isn’t bound to be very pretty.”
When we arrived, we hardly knew what to do, but the cheerful plinkety-plonk of the player pianos kept our steps light even as our stomachs growled, and kept us hoping that the answer would come. Later, of course, the irony of this dawned on me – we’d taken heart from music produced by mechanisms with no heart at all. We couldn’t have guessed then, but this was symbolic of the Barbary Coast: Merry on the surface, but cold and mercenary underneath.
By then, we’d managed to piece together what had happened to our former home. A Terrible Act of Arson, the newspapers all read. St. Hilda’s had been utterly reduced to cinders. A handful of girls had died of smoke inhalation, as had one of the sisters – Sister Edwina. The remainder of the orphanage’s former occupants were scattered upon the winds of charity that carried them in haphazard manner to five other similar establishments – one as far away as Oregon. If we had lingered instead of running away, we surely would have been separated. This would have proved unbearable; the three of us were family, tied together by a bond even stronger than blood.
We wandered aimlessly for a few days, until Flossie set her sharp mind to ensuring our survival. She procured a name – Mr. Horace Tackett – and the address of the boardinghouse he ran.
“I hear not only will he take us in, he’ll help us find employment,” Flossie said. “He owns the dancehall down the lane.”
Cora mulled this over, brightening. I could see she was already imagining herself wearing a colorful dress.
“But what will I do?” I asked.
Cora and Flossie were sixteen then, but I was not quite fourteen and scrawny, with the figure of a boy. I was a mousy little sister, with few defining features, other than my atypical passion for books, which I very much doubted would help me pass for a dancing girl.
“Hmm.” As Flossie looked me over, it was plain she was wondering the same thing. “I’ll think of something,” she promised.
After a particularly uncomfortable night sleeping in an alley, we agreed to give Tackett’s a try. We’d long ago divided ourselves according to our specialties. It was Flossie’s job to do the negotiating. It was Cora’s job to be witty and fetching. And it was my job to be invisible – or as close to it as I could manage. It was entirely likely that Tackett might want to turn me away, but Flossie set her mind to convincing him I’d make a suitable (and cheap) scullery maid.
When we arrived on his doorstep, Tackett asked our ages, and did not seem to notice nor care that we carried on our persons the scent of burned char. Likewise, he was either unaware or unconcerned with the fact that a girls’ home some small distance away on the other side of town had recently burned to the ground. He clearly did not consider it his duty to bring wayward orphans to the attention of authorities.
I snuck looks at Tackett while Flossie employed her most persuasive appeals. He possessed a clashing air of old age and wiry youth. His face was angular and leathery – like a pirate’s – but his body was surprisingly robust. I also noticed that his hair – presumably grey – had been dyed with so much black it took on a bluish tint.
As fortune would have it, Tackett was down a couple of girls at the dance hall, and eager to replenish this deficit sooner rather than later. Convincing Tackett that my presence was somehow necessary in the whole bargain was trickier – but Flossie, soft-spoken genius that she was, managed to win him round, and Tackett began to approve of the idea of a servant that he didn’t have to pay outright.
“You could tell folks that she’s your ward,” Flossie persuaded him. “After all, if you did have a ward, it would be only natural for her to earn her keep.”
Soon enough, Tackett saw the beauty of it all – and more importantly, the economy. I would be cook and maid. Blanche, the girl who’d had the longest tenure at the boardinghouse and who fancied herself Tackett’s second-in-command, handed me a bedroll and showed me to a slightly sooty alcove in the kitchen where I was to sleep. Being so near the oven fire, it was, at least, quite warm.
Cora and Flossie were to have a small bedroom each. While my work was to begin immediately, Tackett generously insisted that Cora and Flossie remain idle for the week, taking some time to get to know the other girls, and learn the can-can the girls sometimes danced when they were not being ferried about the dance floor by a customer. He ordered Blanche to help them rustle up some suitable dresses.
The week passed quickly. My first memories of the boardinghouse are spotty, impressionistic; I was utterly overwhelmed by this sudden new life. I attempted to survey my surroundings, but it was extremely dim inside the house; I found out later this was because Tackett had a miserly streak, and insisted the gas jets be kept turned down low. And while the house itself was quite large, the rooms were small and cramped – as if they’d been squeezed together by some impulsive, slapdash architect. The floors creaked, the stairs were rickety. The privy, I learned, was out back, through a tiny yard, and put up a horrible smell.
Nevertheless, I threw myself diligently into my work, eager to prove my worth – anything to remain near Cora and Flossie. Between chores, I was curious to see what my friends might get up to, and one afternoon, I spied Cora practicing dancing in the tight space of her room. I was startled by a cough behind me and whirled around to see Flossie had caught me snooping through the crack in Cora’s door.
“We’re meant to join the girls at the dancehall for the first time tomorrow night,” she reminded me. I couldn’t read her expression – if she was excited or apprehensive. But Flossie could be like that; she was so practical, she often appeared emotionless.
The next day, as late afternoon teetered on the precipice of early evening, the girls began getting ready – Cora and Flossie, included. There was a small room with a bathtub inside the main house, and I was charged with boiling water for the girls’ bath – they were each to bathe with the same water in succession, starting with Blanche and ending with the house’s newest additions. I could tell this did not appeal to Cora’s queenly inclinations, but she bit her tongue, excited to get dressed with rouge and dyed petticoats – things we’d never have been allowed to wear in the orphanage.
When all the girls were dressed, they lined up in the hall at the bottom of the stairs. I gasped when I caught sight of Cora. She wore an emerald dress, with black stockings and a black frilly petticoat peeking out from under the shortened front hemline. Her scarlet hair was pinned in a lavish bouffant and her cheeks had been powdered and rouged. It was all very garish, and yet, on Cora, it was also shockingly beautiful. Flossie was dressed similarly, but on her the clothing and maquillage had an unfortunate clownish effect; evidently her pale coloring was no match for one crimson swipe applied from the pot of lip paint.
Tackett descended the rickety stairs, and after giving each girl a once-over, the entire group trooped out the front door. When the door clicked shut, I felt lost to be parted from Cora and Flossie – even if only temporarily.
I can’t recall how I filled those hours, but by the time the front door swung open again on its creaky hinges it was so late it was nearly morning, and I had already retired to my bedroll in the kitchen alcove. At first, I sat up, thinking to go and greet them. But then I flinched to hear male voices – more than one, and rowdy. I crept to the door that led into the sitting room and peeped cautiously within. There they were – I saw no trace of Cora and Flossie, but I spied several of the other girls. And with them were three very drunk men. As I looked on, I detected a strained note to their hilarity. One of the girls, a friendly, rotund woman named Henrietta, attempted to smooth the tension by cranking up the player piano. The cheerful tinny banging of ragtime filled the air. A joke was made and everyone laughed.
But the scene was interrupted when the front door opened again and slapped shut. I caught a flash of Cora going up the stairs, with Flossie following close at her heels. I made a quick dash to the staircase and followed suit.
I found them in Cora’s room.
“What’s wrong?” I begged Flossie.
Both of them looked a little worse for the wear. Their rouge had streaked down their faces in rivulets that suggested dried perspiration. Cora’s eyes looked red, either with anger or tears, I couldn’t tell which.
“What’s wrong?” I repeated. “Who are those men downstairs?”
At this, Cora’s eyes flashed in my direction, green and angry as a cat’s. She ripped the black velvet ribbon from her neck and threw it in my direction.
“Get out, Violet!” she snapped at me.
I was stung. Cora had never spoken to me with such hatred. Flossie hurried to take my arm and usher me out. Once we were in the hallway, she dropped her voice.
“She’s… well, she’s disappointed. She wants to leave,” Flossie confided.
“Shall I get my things?” I asked, thinking of the meager bundle of trinkets presently hidden in the kitchen alcove.
Flossie shook her head. “We can’t leave, Violet. We owe Tackett a week’s worth of rent. He made it clear he won’t be kind about it, and we have no money yet. Besides, where else can we go?”
“You mean, we’re trapped?”
“Shhh!” Flossie urged, her eyes darting in the direction of Cora’s room. “Don’t rub it in; she’s liable to go mad.” Flossie paused. She sighed, and put a hand on my shoulder. “For now, we need to survive, Violet,” she said. “Until we can think of something better.”
I was silent a moment.
“Let Cora alone tonight,” Flossie said finally, patting my shoulder. She sighed, looking tired and discouraged herself. “I’ll come check on you before I go to bed.”
With that, she disappeared back into Cora’s room. The door clattered shut. I stared after her, my mind reeling.
I went back downstairs, anxious for something to do. The sun would come up soon, and I decided to peel and dice potatoes for breakfast; if I was clever I could combine them with yesterday’s corned beef and make a hash.
I stood at the kitchen counter, peeling until I was lost in a trance.
In the front parlor, the men’s voices thundered over the music of the piano.
We can’t leave, Flossie had said. Besides, where else can we go?
I felt a warm, slippery moisture forming in my palm. I looked down and, to my astonishment, realized I had not only picked up one of the kitchen carving knives, but was squeezing it by the blade. I had felt nothing as the blade bit into my skin.
I gasped and yelped, throwing the knife down immediately. It clattered against the dingy tile, and I cast about desperately for something to clean and bind my hand.
Flossie had come to check on me, as promised. Upon hearing my yelp, she rushed in.
“Oh, Violet,” she said. “You’re bleeding!”
Still trembling, I was making a mess. Flossie took over. She led me back to the counter and began to rummage for supplies. She found a bottle of whiskey and doused my wound. I winced.
“What happened?” she asked, cinching a scrap of cloth into a bandage and snipping away the excess with a pair of sewing scissors.
I stared at my hand in disbelief, and took a breath, but couldn’t find any words.
“It was one of your spells,” Flossie quietly deduced.
She looked my bandage over one last time, giving it gentle pat, then led me to my alcove and helped me crawl into bed. “This isn’t exactly what any of us imagined. But for now, Violet, just rest.”
She remained for a moment, stroking my brow, until eventually, I closed my eyes. I was amazed how Flossie never seemed to worry for herself; only others. Eventually, she sighed and I heard her soft steps, moving away – likely to go check yet again on Cora.
Just rest. I knew I should be grateful; at the very least, I hadn’t been separated from Cora and Flossie. I loved them. I cared for them more than I had ever cared for myself.
But there are those who say that three is an unlucky number, and unluckier still when it comes to groups of young girls. Triangles make for poor allegiances, people will say. After all, a triangle – what is that?
The blade of a knife, coming to a point.