Free from the clutches of her con artist father, Ruby Proulx is starting to settle in at the Belden, her aunt Honoria’s seaside hotel. She loves finally being rooted in one place and also feels a sense of purpose as she helps Honoria keep her business afloat by acting as a psychic medium for the hotel’s metaphysically inclined guests.
When one of the guests, renowned Spiritualist and outspoken suffragist Sophronia Foster Eldridge, checks into the hotel for a monthlong stay, Ruby finds her sense of purpose expands outside the confines of home and family. Sophronia takes Ruby under her wing and mentors her in the mediumistic abilities, encouraging her to fight for women’s rights.
But not everyone is as happy with Sophronia’s appearance in Old Orchard. When a dangerous act of sabotage is carried out and a body is found floating in the pool of a local bathhouse, Ruby takes it upon herself to find answers— and in the process learns that her new friend has been hiding some deadly secrets of her own…
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The atmosphere of the suffrage rally had far more in common with a medicine show performance than the attendants would likely have enjoyed hearing. In my experience, crowds of people composed of some filled with hope and others with skepticism create the same impression, no matter the subject of the gathering. Even the setting was similar. A steady breeze flapped canvas tents that ringed the border of the campground’s natural amphitheater. I felt oddly at home and deeply uncomfortable all at the same time.
As I headed for the seat my aunt Honoria had reserved for me near the front I met Officer Lewis from the Old Orchard Police Department.
“I am pleased to see you support a woman’s right to vote, Officer,” I said, giving him a bright smile. “Not everyone is so enlightened.”
“I’m not sure if I support it or not. I’m on duty this evening.”
“On duty?” I wondered if something had occurred to warrant police attention. “Surely there’s no cause for concern when a group of politically minded women gather together to promote equality?”
“Rallies like these can easily get out of hand. Emotions tend to run high on the matter of suffrage.” Officer Lewis bent toward me. “Sometimes it’s the ladies who are the most unruly.”
“What is it that they do to get into so much trouble?” I asked. “Do they speak their minds? Wear bloomers? Smoke cigars?” Officer Lewis blushed to the roots of his hair. He shook his head and stammered.
“They chain themselves to fences and use language I haven’t even heard the local fishermen use,” Officer Lewis said.
“Some of them even have been known to hit men over the head with their parasols,” said a deep voice in back of me. I turned around to see Officer Warren Yancey standing directly behind me.
“I understand the urge,” I said. “Although I think it rather ungentlemanly for you to remind me of past sufferings.” Officer Yancey and I had met a few weeks earlier when a passing pickpocket had targeted me as soon as I had alighted from the train in Old Orchard. Since my purse had contained all my worldly goods, save the clothes on my back and my trusty parasol, I had used the latter to drive him off. In the course of doing so I had managed to fall and strike my head on the pavement. Officer Yancey considered himself to be my rescuer. I was convinced the credit for that stayed with me.
“Have you a place to sit?” he asked me. “They are already stopping people at the gate and asking them to listen as best they can from the outside.” Officer Yancey was right. Every bench was filled and people stood along the back.
“My aunt is holding a seat for me near the front. I’d better join her.” I gestured to a spot near the stage where Honoria had turned around and was beckoning me.
“Just be sure to mind your fetching hat when the rotted fruit starts flying.” He tipped his own cap at me as he took his leave. I hurried to where Honoria awaited me, all the while sneaking peeks at the other attendees for signs of produce. I settled myself just as a hush descended over the crowd and Sophronia Foster Eldridge took the stage. A cheer of welcome went up from the crowd and then the amphitheater quieted again as she motioned with her hands for the noise to stop.
Sophronia was one of the country’s most renowned suffragist leaders, one who used her abilities as a psychic medium to channel messages of equality from beyond the veil. Which is precisely why she reserved rooms at the Belden for her visit to Old Orchard. My aunt had realized some time ago that her modest hotel could not compete with the grandeur offered by the neighboring competition in our seaside community.
Like the savvy businesswoman she was, my aunt decided the only way to remain solvent was to create a niche for herself in the market. Honoria, who was a dedicated Spiritualist, decided to staff her establishment with paranormal practitioners and offer readings and development opportunities to spiritually inclined guests.
So far the venture was proving profitable and the arrival of Sophronia was expected to help make it even more so. In fact, Sophronia’s choice of the Belden as her base in Old Orchard was a magnificent peacock plume in Honoria’s straw bonnet. We found ourselves completely booked for the rest of the summer as a result of her stay.
Even though she was a guest at Honoria’s hotel I had yet to lay eyes on her. A delay in her train’s arrival had necessitated her heading straight from the station to the amphitheater. Honoria and I had had to content ourselves with welcoming her steamer trunks and valises. I could tell from her upright posture Honoria was even more eager than I for her first glance of our famous guest. She had nearly exhausted herself, not to mention the hotel staff, over the last few days ensuring every detail was in readiness for Sophronia’s arrival.
Sophronia stepped into the center of the stage. Her severe black gown highlighted the pallor of her cheeks and gave her an otherworldly appearance. Despite her ephemeral appearance her voice projected across the natural amphitheater with ease. Honoria leaned forward like an eager child. I felt a thrill of anticipation run across my stomach as I awaited her message.
“I am gratified to see that so many of you have turned out today in support of enfranchisement for women.” Sophronia’s cheeks pinked as she warmed to her subject. “I am here this day to encourage you to imagine a world where women not only have the right to vote in elections but are in fact a great force which shines their uniquely moral outlook on those in public office.” All around me voices began to murmur in agreement.
“No longer shall those in power abuse their positions without exposure, without consequence. Men have used the argument that we women are too noble, too pure, to sully ourselves by becoming involved in the moral morass that is politics.” The murmurs grew and Miss Foster Eldridge raised her hands for quiet once more. “I say the world of politics is shockingly in need of a dose of purity, or nobility. The very traits men fear are too delicate to survive the rough-and-tumble shenanigans of the world beyond the hearth and home are the ones most needed to guide our nation.”
She paused and looked out across the crowd. Her compelling gaze landed on several different points. My heart gave a little lurch and I found I was glad that gaze had not fixed on me. There was something about her that made me feel like she could see straight into the subject of her attention.
“For too many years such reasons to keep us at arm’s length have been offered. The quest for the vote has been slow and by no means steady. Year after year we gather and rally and ask for our due. And what have we accomplished of late? Very little, if you ask me.” Sophronia swept an accusing finger across the crowd. “Men of corrupt character freely and routinely hold positions of power in every branch of industry as well as government. For some time now I have received visions and messages from my spirit guide concerning secret dealings and corruption of all sorts and I have been urged by that same spirit to bring those dark deeds before the public. I have nearly finished compiling these messages into a manuscript. When it is finished I fully intend to offer it to the highest publishing bidder. Not only will the world be forced to consider the consequences of men and their misuse of power but I will be in possession of a tidy sum to be used to fund further suffrage efforts.”
The murmurs swelled to a roar. All around me the amphitheater buzzed with noise and rustling as people turned in excitement to those around them. The din pressed against my head like the sound of an oncoming train. There was an uneasy feeling in the atmosphere and I felt the sudden urge to flee. I looked back over my shoulder at the exit, which seemed much farther away than it had when I entered.
Honoria seemed to sense my concern and she placed a reassuring hand on my forearm. I felt my shoulders unclench. Honoria was a dedicated suffragist with a great deal of experience at such rallies. If she noticed no cause for alarm I would trust there was nothing of concern about to transpire.
“You can’t possibly expect anyone will give credence to rumors you say you’ve received from a disembodied spirit?” A man stood in the row and shouted at Sophronia. “The notion is entirely ludicrous, even for a woman. If you have any sense of decorum you will quit the stage at once and save us all from more of these outrageous remarks.” Beside him a small woman in a white summer dress sat gazing up at him with what I interpreted to be a look of adoration upon her face. The man looked familiar but I could not say I had ever before seen him in person. I wondered if I had seen a photograph of him in the newspapers. He had the unchecked self-assurance of a man used to effortlessly getting his own way.
As if on cue Sophronia’s head lolled forward. The noise of the crowd cut off as if their voices had been snatched from their throats by an unseen force. She raised her head again and a voice entirely unlike her own rattled up from her chest and out from between her lips. Her eyes remained closed and she swayed slightly back and forth. Her hand lifted and she stretched a slim finger in the direction of her heckler.
“Your confidence is misplaced. Repent or you will be harried and castigated. You will be thwarted at home and afield.” Sophronia’s voice cackled and she raised her other hand and pointed it at him as well. “You will be brought low by your past and cut off from your future. Change your ways before it is too late.” Sophronia’s voice tapered off at the end and her arms dropped to her sides. A woman from the wings rushed to her and supported her by wrapping a capable arm around her waist.
Before Sophronia’s eyes opened the man began once more to shout. “How dare you threaten me? You are nothing more than a charlatan and a harlot.” Another roar went up from the crowd and all around me people surged to their feet. I was about to stand myself when I felt Honoria’s restraining hand on my arm.
“Best to stay put. When Nelson Plaisted begins a tirade there will likely be projectiles.” She inclined her head in the direction of the man who had raised his voice to Sophronia. “I suggest we take cover before the onslaught begins.” With that, Honoria reached below the bench in front of us and retrieved an umbrella, which she deftly popped open above our heads. I pressed myself under its sheltering canopy just in time to hear something land on the waxed canvas above me.
“You know his name?” I said.
“Of course I do,” Honoria shook her head and exhaled deeply. “That odious fellow is Congressman Nelson Plaisted. I rather suspect he’s here running for reelection.”
There were few things Yancey disliked more than disbanding unruly crowds. Especially those comprised mostly of women. Even more especially when the crowd contained his sister. His mood was not improved by the inclusion in the fray of Miss Honoria Belden and her niece, the irrepressible Miss Proulx.
Fruit had, as he had predicted, been flung, but he was relieved to note as he caught sight of Miss Proulx that none of it clung to her hat or any part of her costume. As she passed nearby, her hair tumbling out of its pins and framing her face in damp curls Yancey’s heart gave a tight tug at the sight of her. That was until she approached and began to speak.
“There was no cause for you to insist on dispersing the crowd. If I wasn’t inclined to give you the benefit of the doubt I’d be forced to think you did not want women to have a public forum for progress.” Miss Proulx’s hands had crept onto her hips and her words pelted out of her like rock salt from a shotgun. Yancey felt like a crow in a cornfield.
“Protecting the citizenry is part of my job. I will rely on my own judgment as to how best to perform that duty,” Yancey said. He was irritated to note he felt the unwelcome familiar heat at the back of his neck he generally experienced when interacting with Miss Proulx.
“But that’s exactly why we are here. Without the right to vote we cannot truly be considered citizens.”
“Citizens or not, I doubt those pelted with spoilt produce were unhappy with my decision to clear the amphitheater.”
“No one was hurt.”
“But they would have been if we hadn’t insisted on disassembly. Rocks would have been flying through the air next. The meeting had become passionately overheated.” Yancey felt he could be speaking for himself as much as for those involved more directly in the meeting. There was just something about Miss Proulx that set his nerves jangling. Not for the first time, he wished her far from his presence so he could better concentrate on the matters at hand. Before he could extract himself from her absorbing company she spoke again.
“I would have thought an experienced police officer such as yourself would not have been so easily rattled. It was just a handful of wizened apples and an onion or two,” Miss Proulx said. Yancey could hardly believe what he was hearing. Of all the unreasonable attitudes.
“Have you ever witnessed the unbridled power of a mob?” Yancey asked.
“Would it surprise you to hear I have been in the very thick of riots on more than one occasion?” Miss Proulx tipped her head back to better look him in the eye. Upon a closer inspection of her face he spotted a streak of what looked like strawberry pulp marring the smooth complexion of her right cheek.
“Miss Proulx, it would not surprise me in the least to hear that not only were you in the very heart of many a mob but that you were in fact the cause of every one of them.”
“I see we understand each other completely.” With that, Miss Proulx turned her back and flounced away.
“Miss Proulx is a remarkable young woman.” Yancey turned to see Thomas Lydale standing nearby. “And while I am in accord with her opinions concerning the vote for women, I can’t agree with her about breaking up the assembly. From what I caught on film, things were getting ugly, fast.” Thomas patted the front of his jacket and leaned in, lowering his voice.
“Trying out a new detective camera?” Warren asked. Thomas owned a photographic studio on Old Orchard Street, across from the police station, where he spent most days paying the bills by taking souvenir photographs of rich socialites and their families. But his real passion was candid shots of ordinary people going about their normal lives. He claimed people behaved differently as soon as they knew they were being photographed, or even if they knew a camera was in the area. He used a variety of hidden cameras to get the most natural results.
“I am indeed. I ordered this one from a Sears and Roebuck catalogue. It came in the post a couple of days ago.”
“And you thought this rally was a good place to test it out?” Yancey looked around at the overturned benches and a cluster of flies settling on a bruised pear.
“Someday, when women have finally gotten the right to vote events like this rally will be historically significant. I may be the only one capturing these exciting moments the way they really unfolded.”
“Exciting is one way to describe it. I know a lot of men feel angered by the mere suggestion of women voting, but that man in the front row sounded more like it was personal.”
“That’s because it was.” Thomas nodded for emphasis. “He was engaged to be married to Sophronia at one time.”
“That would explain the vehemence. Do you happen to know who was responsible for ending the engagement?”
“My understanding is that he did but I believe he would say that she forced him to do so,” Thomas said. “Sophronia became a supporter of suffrage after he had proposed marriage. Nelson Plaisted had political aspirations even then and a wife with suffrage leanings would have proved too much of a liability.” Thomas shook his head. “It’s one of life’s cruelties that a man like that captured the favor of two lovely ladies while neither you nor I have a sweetheart between us.”
“Speak for yourself, man. I have a great deal more female society than I prefer at present.” Yancey’s glance moved toward the exit, where Miss Proulx was engaging in a lively conversation with his younger sister, Lucy. Miss Proulx’s dark head leaned toward Lucy’s fairer one and both women were gesturing animatedly in his direction. He hardly dared to think what sort of mischief the two of them were concocting. He dragged his thoughts back to the matter at hand. “How do you know so much about Miss Foster Eldridge’s private life?”
“Quite a number of years ago, I worked up in Portland for her at a newspaper that she and a partner founded.”
Yancey was intrigued. He didn’t know Thomas all that well but every new piece of information he shared about his past revealed another interesting facet to his life. He couldn’t help but feel a bit of a pang when he considered how impressed his sister and Miss Proulx would be by a man who so forthrightly admitted to working for a woman. “Was it a suffrage newspaper?” he asked.
“No. It was temperance rag.”
“I wouldn’t have taken you for a temperance man.” Yancey had mixed feelings about the subject of alcohol. He’d been to enough domestic disturbances to know overindulgence in strong drink caused a lot of misery. But no good came of driving the liquor trade underground, either. Those poor saps who wanted it would find a way to get it no matter what the hurdles in their path. It likely would just drive their already poor families to the brink of destitution while lining the pockets of the suppliers.
Yancey hadn’t any use for the laws himself and usually turned a blind eye on any harmless tippling. In his opinion enforcement of prohibition laws were a waste of police time and public resources. The community was best served by dealing with violent men and hardened criminals. He would have guessed Thomas would have agreed.
“I didn’t say I supported the idea, just that I worked for the paper. I was just seventeen at the time and I had a far-fetched notion of the nobility of journalism.” Thomas hoisted both of his bony shoulders in an apologetic shrug. “It seems foolish now but back then I would have done anything to work for a newspaper and in fact, I basically did.”
“What sort of anything?”
“I took the photographs, wrote some of the articles under a female pen name, and served as a general dogsbody.”
“When was this?”
“About a dozen years ago, more or less.” Thomas’s usually sunny face clouded over. “It was a real nice job while it lasted. But then the paper folded and I was out of a job. It wasn’t a good time to look for a new one, either.” Thomas was right about that. The Long Depression had sent people from all walks of life onto the breadlines. A man working for a suffrage newspaper would not have had an easy time competing for what little work could be found.
“Did the paper go under because of money troubles?” Yancey asked.
“No, it was because of the broken engagement between Sophronia and Nelson Plaisted.” Thomas fiddled with his vest as though the memories were hard to revisit. “Nelson saw a greater political advantage in marrying a girl with better social connections. Especially one whose father owned a newspaper,” Thomas said. “Nelson proposed to Sophronia’s business partner and before they even set a date they shut down the paper.”
“Was that his wife that was with him? Was she the former business partner?”
“That’s her—Caroline Plaisted.”
“It’s a wonder Miss Foster Eldridge wasn’t the one doing the shouting.”
Thomas patted his vest again. “You were wise to clear the amphitheater. Given their history, it will be a wonder if matters don’t escalate to violence despite your best efforts.”
Generally, we did not serve refreshments in the ladies’ writing room but Honoria had decided an exception could be made. When I offered to collect the tray from the kitchen myself my aunt gave me an indulgent smile and said she’d be waiting to introduce me. The tray held a pot of tea and an assortment of Mrs. Doyle’s very best baked goods as well as a pot of strawberry jam and another of salted butter.
Everything looked as delicious as ever but strangely, I found I had no appetite. I had never met anyone famous before, and all Lucy’s talk of how important Miss Foster Eldridge was caused me to lose my nerve. I crept to the side of the door and was just about to peek my head around the doorjamb when the floorboard below my foot let out a groan. I pulled back and held my breath.
“Do show yourself, whoever you are,” a rich voice warmed by a trace of good humor called out. Embarrassed, I took myself in hand and stepped through the doorway.
The ladies’ writing room was one of my favorite rooms in the hotel. Sunlight streamed in through the tall windows and bathed the dusty rose carpet and polished walnut furniture. Cut glass shades on the lamps provided a bit of sparkle, and every comfort for attending to one’s correspondence sat easily at hand. A matched brass set of blotter and inkwell perched on the writing desk tucked into the turret window at the end of the room.
I didn’t need to look into the room to remember the details of the space. They had delighted me so much I could recall them all in my sleep. Even after residing at the hotel for some weeks the pleasure of the place and the luxury of the furnishings had not worn off. I crossed to the settee at the far end of the room and placed the heavy tray on the low table in front of it. Honoria sat next to a slight, fair woman dressed all in black.
“Sophronia, allow me to present my niece, Ruby Proulx.” Honoria raised a plump hand toward me and smiled reassuringly.
“Hello, Ruby.” She glanced up and down at me as I stood there like a private under the scrutiny of a commanding officer. “Your aunt told me you were a lovely young woman and she did not exaggerate.”
I never knew how to take a compliment on my appearance. For one thing, I was not used to them. My life had not provided me with many opportunities to fuss over my looks. Traveling with my father in a medicine show was hardly the sort of environment needed to school oneself in the finer art of hairdressing or fashionable clothing. I hadn’t even had a mirror large enough to see my entire figure until I arrived at the hotel. My knowledge of my appearance came from a sliver of shaving mirror my father had kept amongst his meager possessions.
According to Millie, a maid at the hotel who had helped me to pick out appropriate clothing and to dress my hair, my head of thick, brown curls was worthy of a bit of pride. She fussed over it and arranged it and tucked combs into it in just the right places to keep it piled upon my head. I would not have managed the first week or so at the hotel without her. She had provided guidance at every turn. But even with her encouragement I still found comments like Sophronia’s disconcerting. I found it easiest to change the subject before I became flustered.
“Shall I pour some tea?” I asked, gesturing to the teapot. I glanced at Honoria, and she nodded. “For you, Miss Foster Eldridge?”
“Only if you consent to join us,” she said. “And please do call me Sophronia. I dislike formality in all its guises.”
“It would be my pleasure.” I lifted the pot and poured out three steaming cups. Sophronia seated herself on the settee and patted the place next to her. “Sit. Tell me about yourself.”
“There isn’t a great deal to tell, I’m afraid.” I lowered myself into a delicate armchair and offered her the sugar bowl.
“It has been my experience that every woman has a story to tell.” Sophronia dropped four lumps of sugar into her teacup and stirred gently. “I have no reason to believe you should be the exception to the rule.”
“What sorts of things do you want to know?”
“Honoria tells me you are a gifted medium whose talents are the backbone of the hotel’s success this season,” Sophronia said, smiling at my aunt.
“Honoria is more kind to me than I deserve,” I said. It wasn’t just a polite bit of conversational deflection. It was the truth.
Honoria had welcomed me with open arms and an open heart when I appeared without warning and with nowhere else to turn. She had saved a space for me in what I felt was the loveliest room in the hotel ever since she had received a message in a dream that my mother would never have need of an earthly home again. Honoria encouraged my interests, solicited my opinion, and defended my reputation at the risk of her own. I had done little but use a lifetime of experience conning true believers to earn my keep or her esteem.
The only real claim I could make of a metaphysical gift was my connection to a voice I heard in my left ear advising me from time to time. It had aided me all my life with whispered suggestions and warnings. Before arriving in Old Orchard the voice spoke to me sporadically and unbidden but now it came frequently and I was able to ask its advice. Still, even with that gift to offer, I felt unworthy of Honoria’s generosity and was determined to do all I could to live up to her expectations of me.
“She also mentions that you are quite a modern sort of young lady.”
“I like to think I am,” I said, looking to Honoria for a clue as to how best to answer. Honoria gave me a tiny nod I took to be encouragement to speak my mind. “I believe a modern woman’s obligation is to pursue whichever interests her own heart indicates. I have no particular interest in the attentions of men or the dictates of fashion but I do believe in the right of others to enjoy them if they so choose,” I said, sitting as tall as I could manage, a bright smile fixed on my face.
I had learned over the years almost anything could be uttered aloud so long as it was said with a smile. I hoped this would be the case with Sophronia. It wouldn’t do to offend the guest most responsible for our current financial state.
“So you aren’t the sort of girl who chases after young men and thinks of nothing besides the latest fashions?” Sophronia asked.
“I am far more interested in whizzing about Old Orchard on my bicycle with my friend Lucy,” I said. “She’s spoken of nothing but your arrival for weeks.” Lucy’s enthusiasm for Sophronia’s impending arrival had been the only thing on her mind for at least two weeks. While I felt disloyal even thinking it, truth be told, conversations with her had become ever so slightly tedious.
“Is your friend Lucy a suffrage supporter, too?”
“Lucy is a committed suffragist. She was at the rally today and was terribly disappointed not to make your acquaintance.” Lucy had hoped to meet her after the rally but with the unwarranted haste with which her brother had cleared the amphitheater she had not had the opportunity.
“Is that so?” Sophronia turned to Honoria. “Do you know this Lucy, too?”
“I do. She’s the daughter of my oldest friend,” Honoria said. “And at the risk of sounding biased I would say she is a passionate and capable young woman with a tremendous zest for life.”
“Lucy sounds like exactly the sort of young woman I’ve been hoping to meet,” Sophronia said. “Ruby, if you will be in contact with her soon, would you make an offer to her on my behalf?”
“I have a picnic planned with Lucy this afternoon. Would that be soon enough?”
“What is the message?”
“Please tell Lucy I am in need of a secretary of sorts. I always find an energetic local woman to take under my wing in every town I visit. That way each town I visit has at least one person experienced at organizing for the cause after I leave. It sounds like Lucy is just the person to fill that role in Old Orchard.” Sophronia looked at Honoria and then back at me. “Unless one of you would rather fill the position?” Honoria and I looked at each other.
“I am flattered that you would extend such an invitation to us but as for myself my obligations here at the hotel must be my first priority. Ruby may, however, feel differently.” Both women turned their attention on me.
“I would be happy to show support in whichever way that I can. But my first obligation is to my aunt and to my duties as the hotel medium. Lucy has the time to devote to the cause and she has the passion. Besides, if you are looking for someone with secretarial skills Lucy knows how to use a typewriter.” The clock on the mantelpiece chimed noon and I placed my cup on the table before me. If I hurried I’d have just enough time to prepare for my outing.
“She sounds like the perfect choice. I look forward to meeting her.”
“Why don’t you invite her for dinner here this evening and the two of them could get acquainted? I am sure Lucy will be delighted to accept your proposal. Wouldn’t you agree, Ruby?”
“I believe there is nothing in the world Lucy would like more.” I stood to take my leave. “Except the vote.”
Excerpted from "Whispers of Warning"
Copyright © 2017 Jessica Estevao.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Publishing Group.
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